Skills leaders need to learn in 2021

By March 18, 2021Leadership

Thinking about leadership development? You’re not alone. The last year has put leadership on both a stage and under a microscope. It’s illuminated where leaders are strong and what skills leaders need to learn to be effective. The only things we know for sure: Things change fast and none of us can be 100% sure of what’s around the next corner.

So how do we equip leaders with the skills and tools they need to thrive in the mid-pandemic and (hopefully soon) post-pandemic world? Let’s start with skills and then we’ll talk about delivery.

The 5 skills you need to lead in a changing world

1.   Empathy

This is one of those skills that sounds like a “given”, like “of course leaders need to be empathetic”. The reality is it’s a skill a lot of leaders need to build. I’ve lost count of the number of times we get called because of a “burnout” or “culture” problem, or to coach a leader who is alienating their team. Dig underneath it and we find what’s missing is empathy. A critical element of inclusion and equity? Empathy. Want people to feel a sense of belonging? Start with empathy.

Empathy is two things: the ability to perceive someone else’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone might be thinking or feeling. When you have an empathetic conversation with someone, you show you care. When people feel cared for by you, they trust you.

If the last year has shown us anything, it’s how much it matters that we care about each other at work. Leaders who are safe and trusted people for their teams not only create healthier, more supportive environments but their teams get more things done, reach more goals, and are happier. They see increases in well-being. Bonus? Empathetic leaders tend to be less stressed and experience less burnout themselves.

2.   Values driven

Leaders who have been shining brightly through the chaos of this pandemic are leaders that stand strong in their values. They are crystal clear on what matters most; the beliefs and principles that shape their decision-making. They communicate with and from those values, using their values as a compass, guiding them as they face decisions, opportunities, and challenges. They rely on them to shape their sense of purpose in any given moment and invite others to do the same. The magic happens when leaders are clear on their values, the values of their team, and the values of their organization. Only then can they lead from the values that are shared.

3.   Flexibility

How do leaders get great work done when nothing is certain? They stay agile, flexible, adaptable. Chances that our world will settle down and become predictable and stable? I’m betting 0%. Can you teach people to be flexible? Yes. We teach leaders to stay focused on their big, shared vision with their teams. Then, use agile practices to stay nimble, incorporate changes constantly into their daily, weekly, monthly work, and readjust every 2-quarters. We teach leaders to use simple communication structures like daily huddles and check-ins to stay flexible day to day with small and big changes in people’s work and lives.  

4.   Experimentation

When so many of the old rules and ways of doing things no longer apply, we’re all going to have to learn our way forward. Leaders have to be relentless learners, and they have to be able to teach their teams how to learn. One of the very best ways to learn is to experiment. Experimentation is gold right now, because it helps us learn, is typically low-risk, builds trust, and doesn’t require a long-term commitment. What’s not to like about that?!

In a nutshell, it works like this: leaders invite a few people to be a part of a small experiment focused on something that matters. Maybe it’s communication, collaboration, schedules, technology, it could be anything.  Decide what you’re going to try, how long your experiment will last, and if there are any exceptions. Make sure you critique it together when it’s over before you decide to tweak it, scrap it, or keep it.  

5.   Creativity

We need leaders that can imagine and reimagine new ways of doing things, invent new solutions to new problems, challenge the status quo, and give permission to themselves and their teams to ask new questions. This is the skill that brings it all together. It’s not surprising to find out that the most creative people are empathetic, flexible, and big experimenters. While “design thinking” isn’t new in the leadership world, we’re finding it more relevant and valuable than ever.

How have leadership programs changed in 2021?  

So how are we teaching leaders now? A lot of it is virtual, of course, but here’s what we’re seeing and doing differently. We’ve shifted all of our leadership programs to virtual formats. In making that shift we:

  1. Shortened sessions to minimize zoom fatigue, so we work more in short 1-2 hour bursts than in day-long sessions.  
  2. Designed intentional social connection opportunities within and outside of our sessions to make up for the lack of really important chit-chat and banter that happens naturally in person.
  3. Use all the technology we can to support social interaction and collaboration. We use the virtual whiteboard superhero platform, Mural, to work together, lead exercises, activities, and breakouts. We use Mighty Networks for offline community building.
  4. Include short coaching sessions and check-ins monthly to stay connected and keep a pulse on how people are doing and feeling.

We all need the tools, strategies, and mindsets to work, live and learn into the next “new normal,” but leaders always go first. Great leaders make great things happen. 

Leadership is our big passion so get in touch with us if you’re thinking about leadership development and could use some creative thought partnership, design, and teaching. Sign up for a free 30-minute discovery call to discuss how we can help.

Jen Margolis

About Jen Margolis

My passion is helping people find and use their strengths to move toward their biggest vision. My career began as a community organizer with refugees and grew to designing and facilitating programs for international professionals including grassroots women leaders in Egypt. These experiences led me to management consulting focusing on strategic planning, leadership development, community and education based program development and executive coaching.