What Leadership Skills will be the Key to Success in 2021?

Barry Bickel

Barry Bickel

Senior Consultant

Mountaintops inspire leaders but valleys mature them

As the world finally begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders will need to possess a unique set of skills to effectively lead their organizations in 2021 and beyond.

COVID-19 has transformed life as we know it, impacting us personally, academically and professionally. As the world begins the slow and the tedious process of learning how to reopen safely continues, businesses and communities alike are looking to leaders for guidance to help navigate this with success.

While some may view this as a major roadblock, we see it as an opportunity for organizations and leaders to have a fresh start — forced to optimize their performance and their vision through progressive ideas and skills.

Throughout the pandemic many individuals and organizations have recognized the need for mindset, mental health and resilience support.  Most of this demand was placed at the door of HR and leaders.  The field of mindset and mental health support is relatively new and awash with mixed language and solutions.  Leaders will need to target the right solutions at the right time during the change curve response.

The ‘change curve’ comes from the work  of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969) and was adapted for organizational and social change. The curve explores the thinking and feeling journey that people go through as a response to change:

When change is imposed or received by people not involved in design of change, humans will go through this change curve response.  As the world moves out of the crisis and in the direction of thriving again, It is imperative that leaders develop the necessary mindset and skills at the appropriate time to accomplish this with their organizations.

Soft leadership skills will be most important as organizations recover from the crisis of 2020.

While strategic thinking, delivering results and executing with excellence will always be critical leadership skills, soft leadership skills will take center stage in 2021.   Academic, speaker and author, Dr Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead,  says the world needs leaders who are “self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”   At her event hosted by The Growth Faculty she said she wished leaders were choosing courage over comfort.

Most importantly, courage to acknowledge their team members have feelings.  “We have to attend to fears and feelings, otherwise we can’t attend to unproductive behavior,”  she said.  Leadership in 2021 requires a more human-centered approach than in the past.

In order to successfully guide their organizations from the crisis to a state of thriving, leaders in 2021 must develop the following skills:


Empathy is crucial during times of crisis when so many people are struggling. It’s also key to producing the kinds of connections with colleagues that can generate much-needed innovation. Empathetic leaders know how to create an atmosphere in which all of their team members – not just a few – come forward with ideas. They know how to engage with team members who are different from themselves because of culture, or background, or personality, or age.

COVID-19 revealed the importance of leaders showing that they cared and were supporting their team and employees. Individuals need to know that their leaders have their back and that they still have whatever they were getting from work e.g. status, certainty, autonomy, relationships, fairness, belonging and security. With each phone call, zoom meeting, involvement in team activities, recalled personal story and connection with the leader, the bond between team member and organization grows.  In the early stages of the ‘change curve’ people are scared.

There is little information to make them less scared. It results in classic fight of flight responses of ‘denial’, burying our heads in the sand until it goes away or hyper defensiveness, sceptically challenging everything.

Now is not the time to leave anyone isolated or excluded. Leaders must value and practice diversity and inclusion, create safety and belonging and acknowledge the emotions that the team may be feeling. Leaders don’t always know the answers either so they must lead with care, giving and building trust through intimacy, reliability and selflessness rather than credibility. Intimacy demands knowing how the change is affecting people’s personal experiences (home, kids, family, social life etc.) and being genuinely interested in their world.


Resilience in leaders will be key because their employees are exhausted from the uncertainty and anxiety of this past year.  A recent survey of 1711 global leaders conducted by CEMS–Global Alliance in Management Education points to the increasing importance of resilience. Pre-pandemic, 13 percent would have pointed to resilience as a necessary leadership skill; post-pandemic, that number increases to 34 percent.

While we can’t always control which problems land on our desk, we can control the mindset to solve them – being solutions orientated, thinking beyond the moment and creating win-win outcomes are all important.  A huge part of resilience is physical resilience, wellness and wellbeing – being active, healthy and sleeping well. 

Humans can be prone to catastrophizing, being overwhelmed, finding blame and excuses when they are in a crisis. Leaders need to control the narrative and the focus of the team in order to remain positive and yet at the same time, face the reality of the change. This is often known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years. Stockdale survived whilst those around him perished.

When asked how he survived whilst others didn’t, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade”. This is a very important lesson. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to sense and respond in a way which increases reciprocity but also steers and influences us to modify the direction that our automatic response would have made. In this way EQ allows us to improve the natural responses to our implicit memories. This means occasionally interrupting our automatic behavior to steer the interaction in a more productive direction. This new sense of direction needs to prove worthwhile, but having done so it initiates supervised learning in the other party or parties of the relationship and as a result builds deep respect and become a basis for trust.

To put it simply the members of the team have learned together and improved together. In teams of people it allows a knowledge to develop of intentionality to each other. This is particularly important to your understanding of how your fellow team members will interact with each other in response to your behavior. This is the basis for a sense of comradeship in which the team enjoys deeper knowledge of your colleagues intentions and actions in response to events.

Cultural Intelligence and Inclusivity

Cultural intelligence measures their ability to relate, and work well in culturally diverse situations. If a leader has cultural intelligence, they are more ready to effectively lead and work with culturally diverse people. Cultural Intelligence has attracted worldwide research and study since its introduction by two researchers, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in their 2003 book Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures. They define it as “the ability not just to understand others, but to understand others who do not meet your cultural norms, and then act on that knowledge in a mutually beneficial way”.

The growing diversity of the workforce can be an asset or a liability, depending on how it is managed. When internal diversity is used strategically and combined with cultural intelligence, firms can capitalize on opportunities more effectively. Rather than relying solely on market research and surveys, a diverse workforce provides first-hand insights as to the motivations and concerns of a broad range of customers. Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard, and Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, personally chair their companies’ diversity and inclusion councils. They believe there is a direct link between their diversity efforts and customer satisfaction. Moynihan says, “When internal diversity and inclusion scores are strong…[we] will serve our customers better, and we’ll be better off as an organization.

Deloitte research shows that inclusive leaders demonstrate six signature traits: commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration.  By focusing on developing these behaviors, leaders can more effectively lead their organizations out of the crisis and into the future.

Communication (Storytelling)

Moving past the Covid-19 crisis provides leaders with a compelling reason to engage and strengthen overall connections with employees. Frequent, clear, and succinct communication is vital. Equally, the repetition of messages and usage to different channels of communication ensures everyone hears the message. Remember just because you heard it the first time you said it, doesn’t mean the audience had the opportunity to listen to it the first time.

Technology allows us to reach out and connect instantly with others and share information. However, we are paying the price for this convenience with the loss of our communication skills. More and more as we hide behind the screens of our computers, phones and tablets we confuse the action of sending out information with the thought of creating understanding. Then, when a message was not received or was interpreted differently than intended, we are puzzled by what went wrong.

This is why understanding your communication style and  learning effective communication tactics is more important than ever. Communicating, or “getting through” is about speaking and listening, empathizing with others, explaining yourself clearly, and summarizing your message. Only then can your words and actions translate into true understanding.

Last, a critical leadership TRAIT for 2021 and beyond

While the skills reviewed here will be critical for success in 2021 and beyond, there is one trait above all others that will always be required of leaders.  Character has always been and will continue to be the most important trait of a successful leader. The highest levels of character require courage, determination, integrity and self-discipline. Former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper stressed the importance of personal leadership and character as keys to success in business. He said leadership based on values attracts quality employees, simplifies decision making, earns the respect of the customer and community and instills trust and pride among employees.

Personal character, Pepper said, must remain constant across one’s corporate, public and private lives.  “I believe it is perilous to have different sets of values for different parts of your life,” Pepper said. “I know that my effectiveness and peace of mind demand that the values that guide my life in P&G, in community activities, in my family life, and in the privacy of my own mind and heart be as much the same as possible.”

It is often said that you don’t develop character during a crisis. Rather, a crisis reveals the true character you already have. This pandemic may be unprecedented in our lifetime, but there will always be other unforeseen disruptions ahead.  For these reasons, it is imperative that all leaders develop the discipline to strengthen their ethical values, moral courage and ability to think and reason with clarity, in order to be prepared for the post-pandemic recovery and for future disruptive events we cannot yet imagine.

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