Mastering the Art of 21st Century Leadership: 13 Skills to Lead With Confidence
Throughout history, the emergence of new processes, methods and technologies have prompted changes to the workplace. But never quite as rapidly as what we're experiencing today.
In just a few short years, many of the skills needed to manage a workplace successfully and with agility have been upended, thanks to the shift to remote work, globally dispersed employees and the rapid-fire pace of advanced technologies.
Only one in 10 people today have the talent to be a great manager, according to research from Gallup. Yet, one in five could become successful managers if they receive the right coaching and development.
13 Most Important Leadership Skills in Today's Digital Workplace
The best way to deal with the shifting work climate is to invest in ongoing leadership skills development.
The right leadership skills can help employees forge better relationships, work smarter and stay focused on goals. Plus these skills often extend beyond the workplace, offering benefits in all areas of life.
Let's dive into some of the most valuable leadership skills for today's workplace.
1. Wisdom With Compassion
One common fallacy is that leaders need to choose between being nice or being tough, when in fact, leaders who demonstrate wisdom along with compassion achieve better results.
According to a study from Potential Project, 86% of employees with a compassionate and wise leader say they’re satisfied with their jobs. And 64% say they face decreased levels of burnout.
“If you start to think about what our role is as leaders, it’s actually quite simple,” Chris Toth, CEO of Varian, told Harvard Business Review.
“Our role is not to be the ones who make the decision or to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, it can be exceptionally dangerous if the decision-making always goes to the leader. Instead, you must create a culture of compassion and empowerment that is accepting of diverse perspectives. This unlocks people’s creativity, productivity and happiness.”
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Integrity means being honest with your employees, even in tough situations.
People are more likely to give you their best if they know the “why” behind decisions, such as increased workloads or a tight deadline. You can also encourage team members to talk through problems and come up with solutions.
In that same vein, leaders let employees know about their own mistakes. They acknowledge responsibility and take appropriate actions.
Personal culpability is one of the best ways to build trust and respect with your team. It tells them that everyone is human — even leadership! — and makes mistakes. How you handle those mistakes matters.
A key component of leadership is knowing your strengths, weaknesses and emotions. Emotional intelligence is an important skill for leaders to develop.
In the workplace, leaders should be role models to employees and speak about ways they're tackling their weaknesses or looking to build upon skills. For instance, they might talk about a class they're taking or mention a webinar that's coming up in a few days.
This self-awareness should extend to emotional responses too, especially during times of high stress. How you handle these situations will directly impact your people and their performance.
4. Eagerness to Learn
A major trait of great business leaders is their ability to continuously learn new things.
Earning the top position in your team, department or company doesn’t mean you stop learning. As William Shakespeare wrote, "A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool."
Be curious and ask lots of questions. Read articles about your industry, attend seminars and conferences and talk to interesting and creative people. Look into new courses or workshops to expand on your current skillset or adopt a new skill.
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5. Digital Savviness
Digital savviness is one of the key skills needed by today's leaders.
But it's not just knowing how to get online and send an email. It requires a thorough understanding, through both experience and education, of the technologies currently in use and how emerging technologies will impact business in the coming years.
MIT Sloan Management Review found that companies with a digitally savvy leadership team outperformed companies with no digitally savvy leadership by 48%.
If you want to improve your skills in the digital realm, you have a lot of options to turn to. Google, for one. The search engine can offer a wealth of information on any topic — all you have to do is look for it. You can also take courses, watch software tutorials and ask for help from tech experts.
Effective leaders don't act alone. They know to surround themselves with the best people, and training others to achieve greater things.
That means continually building upon and strengthening workplace relationships.
Relationship-building can be a challenge today, particularly when teams work remotely or in a hybrid capacity. They might be in different locations, working at different times. There are 10+ platforms to communicate with. But leaders still need to find ways to cultivate meaningful interactions.
Relationships are the foundation for attracting, keeping and getting the most out of your team members. And building those relationships requires taking the time to learn about each individual, getting to know their strengths and planning how to develop their potential.
7. Team-building Capabilities
If strong leadership skills involve building strong relationships with others, team-building goes a step further by also promoting positive interactions between members of the team.
Successful team-builders know which strengths (and weaknesses) work best together, allowing them to craft a well-rounded team that can perform to its fullest potential. They can bring out the best in each person and encourage individuals to branch outside of their comfort zones.
Related Article: Why Leaders Need Upskilling Too
8. Communication Skills
Small miscommunications — a missed email, an accidentally deleted instant message — can cause big problems. A leader's job is to implement streamlined, clear and regular communication throughout the workplace in an attempt to prevent these issues.
Today's leaders need to think about not just what they say but also how they say it. Is it concise and easy to understand? Does it leave room for interpretation? Should it require follow-up communication from the employee?
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Great communication skills also require an understanding of where to communicate. Which channel do team members prefer? Does the communication require an immediate answer? In which scenarios is face-to-face communication best?
9. Active Listening
Employees don’t want to attend meetings where leadership talks for an hour and doesn’t ask questions. They also don’t want a leader who asks for feedback but doesn’t listen or take action.
Successful leaders need to practice active listening, another key piece of communication skills. Active listening means actually hearing what people say, observing verbal and non-verbal cues and providing feedback in a way that improves mutual understanding.
A leader's job is to lead. And that is difficult to do if you have to answer every question or check in on every project.
Instead, leaders need to tap into their team's combined knowledge and allow them to solve tasks and challenges when they arise.
Delegation goes beyond assignments, too. It means empowering employees to take the lead, make decisions and grow.
When you know a team member is prepared to handle an important task, delegate it. Ultimately, delegation promotes employee confidence, allows workers to develop new skills and frees up your time, as leader, for more complex issues.
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11. Gratitude Expression
When it comes to leadership skills that are often forgotten, gratitude expression is high on the list.
It's important for employees to hear they're doing a good job. But leaders, caught up in busy schedules, often forget to extend this branch to employees.
A few tips on expressing gratitude effectively:
- Be specific. Don't say "great job." Instead, talk about the real value the employee brings to the workplace. Maybe they allowed you to finish a project on schedule and under budget, or referred two new employees to the company.
- Don't wait. Don't wait months to tell employees something you liked about their performance. Be timely with your gratitude. Don't let more than a few days pass by before you offer words of encouragement.
- Encourage gratitude. Leaders aren't the only ones who can show gratitude. They also encourage employees to show gratitude toward other team members to express thanks or highlight a job well done.
Successful leaders must step outside of their comfort zone at times.
They must know how to look at the context of a situation and determine when its appropriate to take risks in an effort to promote organizational goals.
Risk-taking, part of strategic thinking skills, will take some time to fully develop and understand. It means evaluating the feelings that appear when you take risks, including feelings of discomfort, and understanding the cause behind them.
Leaders also need to look beyond personal outcomes. They ask: how will the risk affect the organization? How will it affect the team? They look at benefits and determine if they outweigh any drawbacks.
No matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you think you have everything under control, things don't always go as intended.
A successful leader must remain flexible and resilient under pressure. If you panic, your team will panic.
Flexibility allows you to effectively guide employees out of a crisis. Adapt your goals to the situation, focus your team on the task at hand, listen to their ideas and act.
And above all, try to maintain a positive attitude throughout, as much as possible.
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Mastering Leadership Skills for Today's Digital Workplace
The workplace looks a bit different today than it did 10 years ago. And while business leaders must adapt, some leadership skills remain a constant. Soft skills that allow you to build stronger relationships, communicate better and drive better outcomes should never go out of style.
Some say leaders are born, not made. But Shakespeare might say those people are fools.
Anyone with the want has leadership potential, and it's possible to teach yourself the leadership skills you need to be successful in the workplace. All you need is curiosity, determination and persistence.
About the Author
Michelle Hawley is an experienced journalist who specializes in reporting on the impact of technology on society. As a senior editor at Simpler Media Group and a reporter for CMSWire and Reworked, she provides in-depth coverage of a range of important topics including employee experience, leadership, customer experience, marketing and more. With an MFA in creative writing and background in inbound marketing, she offers unique insights on the topics of leadership, customer experience, marketing and employee experience. Michelle previously contributed to publications like The Press Enterprise and The Ladders. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with her two dogs.