Analysis: Key Themes in Leadership Trends for 2021

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We’re nearly through the first quarter of 2021 so I decided to take the pulse of what industry analysts and thought leaders are saying about the state of leadership this year. I did an analysis of seven sources* in the talent development and human capital industry to come up with the key themes in leadership trends for this year. Here’s what they’ve predicted, along with my take on the observations.

*See list of white papers, podcasts and blog posts reviewed at end of this post.

3 Key Themes for 2021

Leading with empathy is the new “it” skill. It appears this important leadership trait has finally made the front page due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every source I reviewed included it. Longtime industry analyst Josh Bersin put it this way in a podcast with Human Resources Today: “We’ve learned . . . coming out of last year, that if we aren’t forgiving and kind, and flexible and empathetic, we’re not going to have a company. People aren’t going to come to work. They’re not going to be able to work.” Interestingly, some leaders questioned their ability to lead with compassion remotely. According to DDI, 15% of leaders reported a drop in confidence about the ability to lead with empathy while conducting business virtually.

Leading remotely is here to stay. In 2020 work-from-home (“WFH”) accelerated to rocket speed. Almost overnight, leaders needed to lead remotely. In some form, WFH is here to stay, so leaders must put leading remotely into their toolkit. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that globally, 20% of the workforce could effectively work away from the office for the long haul. Of course, some types of work must be done in person, but for many workers, eyes have been opened to what working from home is really like. (Both the good and the bad.) Further complicating the WFH issue is the fact that frontline, mid-level and senior leadership have vastly differing views on the benefits of WFH

Re-skilling the workforce. As the Mercer paper notes, there is a “race to re-skill,” framing this business need as this decade’s “biggest opportunity and its greatest challenge.” Management consulting firm McKinsey offers this observation: “Evidence shows that the benefits of reskilling current staff, rather than letting them go and then finding new people, typically costs less and brings benefits that outweigh the costs. Investing in employees can also foster loyalty, customer satisfaction, and positive brand perception.” 

Analysis: Parsing Out the 2021 Leadership Trends

Watch the “lens” through which the trends are viewed.. I intentionally chose the keywords “leadership trends 2021” to see what Google returned. Unsurprisingly, large consulting firms tended to highlight business-related market trends such as advances in biopharma and supply chain developments. Firms with a stronger focus on DE&I issues such as Catalyst focused on the ways in which broader trends impacted women and people of color. That’s why it’s good to seek a broad range of opinions so you can synthesize the viewpoints into something that’s useful for your particular situation. 

Glad it’s a “trend” but shouldn’t it be a given? Apparently “leading with empathy” is now mainstream. I’ve been covering this topic in one form or another, with this post from the Economist’s Careers Network blog and here on the blog for a few years. This leads me to wonder: have soft skills jumped the shark? More importantly, why is this considered “news”? Our humanity shouldn’t be a “trend.”

This one’s real; it remains to be seen how quickly it’ll become mainstream. There’s an evolution afoot with learning, training and mentoring. What once was considered sacrosanct (the importance of “high touch” of face-to-face interactions to foster connection and learning) has been fire-tested with the pandemic. Although some prognosticators are touting the “end of the office as we know it”, I remain skeptical. There are valid reports from the field that indicate work-from-home wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be for many segments of the workforce.  Plus, never underestimate the power of out-moded leadership thinking:  my sources on the ground tell me “butts in seats” is still very much alive in the American workplace.

Meh. It’s always a trend. As for “re-skilling”? That’s just a fancy way of saying “training.” And that’s been on the trends radar forever. The part that’s changed? The pace at which new skills must be acquired. 

Ideas for Taking Action on These Leadership Trends

What’s the take-away on these leadership trends?  Here are my quick-takes for things you, as a leader, can do right now to get yourself—and your team—ready for these changes.

  • If your employees are still working remotely, check in with them: what do they like and dislike about the arrangement? How can you find ways to honor their requests regardless of where they sit?
  • Do a skills audit with your team: ask them what skills they feel they could enhance
  • To combat confirmation bias (a natural human tendency) make it a goal to read information from at least one new source each month; when you ask for opinions, always include at least one “outsider”/contrarian viewpoint

One of the roles of thought leaders in the human capital industry is to divine the future of the workplace. While nobody can accurately predict what will happen with 100% accuracy it’s always a smart bet for leaders to stay up-to-date on emerging leadership trends. 

Drop me a line in the comments: what trends are you observing in your corner of the leadership space? Are the trends I highlighted true for your leadership experience?

Resources and white papers reviewed for this post (listed alphabetically)

Josh Bersin – on Human Resources Today podcast

Catalyst – 4 Predictions on Where Workplaces Are Heading in 2021

DDI World – 3 Leadership Trends for 2021 You Can’t Afford to Ignore

McKinsey & Company – The next normal arrives: Trends that will define 2021—and beyond

Mercer – 2021 Global Talent Trends Study

Neuroleadership Institute Podcast: Season 4, Episode 1: What Will Matter Most in 2021

OC Tanner white paper – Leading in Unfamiliar Times

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