7 Leadership Traits for the 21st Century


For our recently released book, The Art of the Nudge, we studied the latest research on leadership, communication, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, while working actively with all types of leadership teams. As a result, we stumbled upon some startling and counterintuitive ideas on the brain and how people make decisions, as well as discovered much evidence for two macro trends affecting our economic society today:

The fast pace of technological change with digital/social/mobile, cloud computing, big data, and IOT.
The inter-generational change in the workforce. Baby boomers are retiring in staggering numbers and tech-savvy millennials are the new largest cohort.
We think these trends and new discoveries have implications for leading in today’s world of digital disruption and transformation. But what is leadership? We like to define it with the following statement: “A leader is someone who gets things done with other people. He/she creates an environment that makes people want to perform better. Simply put: Look behind you, if there are followers, you are a leader.”

The three tasks of any leader are creating a compelling vision, gaining alignment of people who have to participate, and executing the vision. In effect, leaders must lead themselves, lead others, and lead teams. The following 7 items provide an outline for what we believe to be the most important traits in developing and nurturing leaders (we will expound upon each trait in future blogs):

Authenticity: Effective leaders are always more successful when they are authentic. This trait is perhaps even more important in today’s world of ubiquitous information and social sharing. To be authentic you must know yourself and what you believe in – your Whys – and be willing to stand up for them even when it may not be popular. People see right through us when we are faking it. You have to spend time thinking, reflecting, and choosing before you just act.
Curiosity: Effective leaders are aware of things around them and particularly good at identifying trends. Since our subconscious brains can sometimes have a harmful effect in making automatic, instant associations that are often biased, returning to our childhood curiosity helps keep us more open. Curiosity facilitates continuous learning and adapting to ourselves, others, and the situation. Smart people who “know it all,” tend to act like obnoxious Defense Attorneys, only leading the witness to what they think is true. Curious Detectives remain open and curious and are able to hold conflicting ideas in their minds.
Empathic Understanding: Leaders today must be good at understanding themselves, their teams, customers, and situations. They do this by developing the human skills to understand both the facts and emotions of situations. They are in touch with their own feelings and the feeling of others. Having empathy helps them know how to inspire people, tapping into the powerful subconscious brain and the emotions that live there.
Creativity: Leaders have to be creative. They have to dream. They have to tell themselves and others stories of things that have not yet been done. They have to think outside the box and be open to new ideas, thoughts, and ways of doing things. Without creativity, they will just be maintenance managers, holding on to the status quo versus leading their organizations into the future.
Creative Conflict: Along with their own creativity, leaders have to foster an environment of creative conflict. All people need to be able to disagree and have another point-of-view. Creative conflict can uncover unseen alternatives or expose roadblocks, immensely helping with execution. And yes, this is really hard. During conflict or disagreements, most of us allow our subconscious brain (the elephant) to hijack our thinking (the rider), leading to detrimental arguments and sometimes, personal attacks, all of which harden the pavement on our current Superhighways of Destructive Conflict. However, leaders who learn to do creative conflict well, often take the Dirt Road, paving the way for innovation and healthy disruption.
Collaboration: To have creative conflict we must be able to collaborate. Leveraging the strengths and talents of our teams can have quantum effect during all phases of leadership: Vision, Alignment and Execution. And no, that does not mean everyone has to weigh in on everything all the time and totally agree. Learning to share ideas, dialogue, and have conflict leads to better ideas and faster execution.
Inspiration: Leaders today must learn how to inspire others. Many think this is a skill that some people have naturally and no one else can develop. We disagree. We believe that all of us can be better at inspiring if we understand ourselves and are authentic, meet others where they are by understanding them and how they make decisions, and learn how to appeal to others’ powerful subconscious and emotional brains with compelling stories. We all can develop our leadership abilities with the powerful skills of Story Gathering, Building and Telling. Particularly, if you have a roadmap and practice, practice, practice.

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