9 Critical Leadership Qualities Executives Need to Possess in 2020

7 min read
Feb 27, 2020


These days, the business world is in the age of widespread and multidimensional uncertainty. Powered by digital disruption, economic, workforce, employee, and environmental issues are rapidly changing—to the point that change has become the new norm.

The solution to these challenges is what it’s always been: leadership

At the same time, the world has never moved as quickly as it does today—a speed at which many leaders simply can’t keep up with. This lightning-fast pace means leaders need to be able to adapt themselves and their organizations at a moment’s notice to lead their teams through a future filled with many unknown variables. 

Leading through uncertainty is becoming the new norm of leadership. But a problem still remains: How do you develop leaders who can navigate this evolving climate? 

Companies increasingly recognize this vacuum can only be filled by effective leadership. That’s why over 60% of CHROs say that developing their current and future leadership is a top priority in 2020.

But how do you prepare leaders to lead in the future when so many things are uncertain—and the only thing you can be sure of is that things will change? 

You do it by developing critical skills that prepare leaders to find the best way forward in ever-evolving, unpredictable circumstances.  

With that in mind, here are nine critical leadership skills that executives need to possess to be able to lead people in 2020 and beyond.

Did you know: Only 22% of employees believe their management  is very transparent, compared with 40% of managers?

9 Critical Leadership Skills for 2020

Some leadership skills will always be in high demand, and there are also those that change over time. Here are nine leadership skills that are critical for 2020 and the digital era.

1. Honesty and integrity

Leaders today need to be honest and have integrity in the face of problems and challenges. Nothing disengages employees and makes them want to leave the company more than seeing their leaders act shadily and be deceitful. This is one of the main reasons why today’s most effective leaders—like Warren Buffet and Elon Musk—often stress the importance of integrity and honesty.

What’s more, ancient texts written by the biggest leaders of history echo these sentiments.

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one,” Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, a book that is a must-read for anyone wishing to reach their full potential as a leader.  

2. Vision and purpose

We live in the age of purpose. For many employees, and top talent in particular, collecting a paycheck is no longer enough. The ability to do meaningful work is a priority for many jobseekers. 

As such, a leader without a clear vision and purpose won’t be able to lead through uncertainty and turmoil that lies ahead. 

Having a strong vision can galvanize people around a single cause and make them push through their limits. To illustrate, just ask the engineers at SpaceX. You can also check out management guru Simon Sinek explaining the immense power of purpose in a recent TED Talk: Start With Why.

Great Leadership

3. Value-based decision making

A company either stands for something or falls for anything. And more than ever, we see companies that fail in today’s world by cutting corners when things get tough—or ignoring their values as if they were just words written on a wall instead of the beating heart of the organization.

The more integrity the leaders have, the tougher the decisions will be during crises. But, ultimately, the rewards will be more impressive.

Because when the going gets tough, you don’t abandon your values. You adapt your strategy instead. This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff, so to speak. 

To illustrate this point, here’s a great lesson about value-based decision making from Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia.

In the mid-1990s, the clothing company decided to change the packaging of their thermal underwear. They went from good-looking plastic packaging to simply rolling them up and putting a rubber band around them. 

Patagonia was told that this decision would result in a 30% cut in sales. But when the dust settled, they actually enjoyed a 25% increase in sales because customers could feel the materials with their hands and appreciate the quality. 

In addition, the company also saved more than $150,000 in unnecessary packaging cost. But for Patagonia, this was an added bonus. Their goal was to save the environment by using less plastic, and they accomplished that. 

Value-based decision-making isn’t always easy. But the actions always pay off over the long term. To learn more about value-based decision making, take a look at Richard Barrett’s informative book, Building a Values-Driven Organization.

4. Social responsibility

For many influential companies, the top priority is no longer delivering value to their shareholders. It’s delivering value to stakeholders—which includes employees and customers.

Organizations increasingly understand that they live in the real world—and that their actions affect the global community.

“The corporation’s purpose is to find profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said while revealing a corporate social responsibility plan that outlines how the company hopes to go carbon negative by 2025.

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to social responsibility, check out Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing.

5. Communication

Every plan, vision, and idea is in vain if management can’t clearly articulate them to the people who would ultimately be responsible for carrying them out. 

That being the case, clear communication remains incredibly important to the successful organization. Unfortunately, in a world where everything is designed to steal our attention, communicating effectively can be a big challenge.

In addition to being clear and concise, leaders need to manage attention. You might have a great message, but if you’re unable to capture the attention of the people who need to hear it, you may be out of luck.

One recent study found that humans now have an eight-second attention span—which is one second shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. Since you probably can’t condense your message to the point it can be delivered in less than eight second, create an environment that’s free of distractions. 

For more information on how that can be done, check out the fantastic Cal Newport book, Deep Work.

6. Empathy

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. At a very basic level, everyone wants to know that they’re being listened to. Using empathy—or the ability to see things from your employees’ perspective—is a great way to turn anger into respect and doubt into trust. 

To learn more about the importance of empathy, check out a TED Talk from Brene Brown, the author of Dare to Lead, called The Power of Vulnerability.

7. Resilience

Nietzsche once said that the person who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.  Having the strength to stand strong in the face of unknown challenges is what will determine what type of leader you are. 

The disruption of long-standing business models and the paradigm shift happening with the workforce will test many leaders like nothing before. And that’s why resilience is becoming increasingly important. Resilient leaders are better-positioned to overcome these challenges and problems without crumbling under the overwhelming pressure that come with them.

If you want to learn more about resilience, take a look at Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

8. Creativity

The problems of today can’t be solved by the same thinking that created them in the first place. 

We are at the end of Kuhn’s cycle, and new models of leadership, management, and HR are starting to emerge. 

It’s only a matter of time before creative solutions to problems of today will start to appear everywhere—backed up by leadership and human-centric solutions made by sympathizers, consumers, and non-state nor non-company factors. This creativity will make us break the old research and development models and look for solutions from unexpected angles.

A great way to figure out the rules of creativity is by exploring the book by Todd Henry called The Accidental Creative.

9. Accountability

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Your actions speak so loud that I can’t hear what you’re saying.” 

Talk is cheap, and what leadership needs today—more than ever—is accountability. 

We need leaders who will stick to their words and deliver what was promised. The age of purpose in which we live demands that leaders do their best to make their vision a reality while making visible progress. 

Just thinking and talking about change won’t make that change a reality. Leaders who show that they can walk the talk will be the ones who galvanize people the most. 

If you need an example of a leader who did exactly that in unbearable conditions at the edge of the world, look no further than Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

Overcoming Classic Leadership Challenges

Leadership Skills are Always a Work-in-Progress

Greek poet Archilochus once said that we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training. 

Leadership isn’t about what you want to do. It’s about what you want to be. It’s not something you can turn on or off but instead something you embody and live with your full heart every day. 

Effective leadership can’t be taught. It must be learned. 

In order to help your team get to the next level, you need to embody these nine critical leadership skills—and start living them day in day out. 

Whether it’s learning about integrity from Marcus Aurelius, learning about the immense power of why from Simon Sinek, or caring about the world around you like Yvon Chouinard, each skill and technique you learn will help you sharpen your skills.

The more of these qualities you incorporate into your repertoire, the closer you’ll get to your goals. So pick up a book, attend a seminar, and talk to the folks in your network to see what’s working for them. Adopt a growth mindset and a commitment to improving your leadership skills, and your team will take notice.

And that’s the ticket to a happier, more engaged workforce that moves together to accomplish the organization’s goals every day.




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