25 Essential 21st Century Leadership Skills

There’s much that’s new and different about leadership, management, and communication in the digital age.

There’s also significant continuity with earlier times.

One might say: the principles endure, the applications change.

What’s old and what’s new are both seen in the following list of 21st century leadership skills (one might as well have said 21st-century leadership traits, but the term skills better convey that leadership comprises capacities that can be learned, refined, cultivated, improved… and constantly updated to serve more effectively).

The list that follows attempts to capture enduring leadership lessons within the unique, fast-moving circumstances of the early 21st century.

Please share your views and share with others. Like everything today, it’s a work in progress, made better by collaborative input.

 25 Essential 21st Century Leadership Skills

9 Essential 21st Century Leadership Skills - Think Strategic for Schools

1. Leaders Serve. In the Information Age, everyone everywhere is potentially in a relationship with you (whether you choose it or not). A service mentality is not just an ethical plus—it’s required.

2. Cultivate Courage. Courage and sacrifice remain the foundation of leadership, service. The higher levels of service—and sacrifice—are the binding elements of effective leadership in all times and places.

3. Think in Terms of Relationships. Gaining advantage in isolated transactions cannot be the basis of a sustainable business model. Now every business is a relationship business.

4. Create Value. Value is not based on how long or hard you work, or on your commendable motivations, or what you think you deserve. It’s based solely on your customers’ judgment. Today, those you serve are empowered to seek out, compare, and measure value as never before.

5. Advance Your Customers’ Values to Create Value. In a time of customer empowerment and relentless commoditization, advancing the values of your customers can be a potent differentiator. Focusing on values is not a distraction from the hard facts of business. Today, values can create value.

6. Vision Remains the Foundation of Leadership. From the Bible to this very day, casting a vision remains an indispensable element of leadership. 

7. Make Management a Vital Part of Your Leadership. Management is part of leadership. Effective leaders are effective managers. Effective managers are effective leaders.

8. Aim to be Best in the World. That’s right: in the world. Mediocrity is lethal. Best in the world is the only sustainable business model. In our digital age, people can seek out the best value from anywhere in the world. Resting on laurels, or settling for second-best has never been so hazardous.

9. Listen and Observe with the Intensity of an Artist. Listening is the master skill in a relationship-based world. An ideal is to learn to listen and observe with the focus of an actor, a writer, a painter. Merely hearing is as far from listening,  as conversing at a coffee table is from presenting a speech to thousands.

10. Ask Questions. Refrain from Answers. The open ends of question marks invite engagement. The closed ends of periods are the equivalent of the body language of defensively crossed arms. Declarations fit naturally into transactions. Questions are the building blocks of relationships. 

11. Master the Arts and Science of Influence. Internal and external stakeholders have greater leverage than ever before. The age of the boss is over. “The power to persuade” is now as necessary a skillset for corporate CEOs as politicians.

12. Recognize that Communication is Part of Everything You Do. Communication skills cannot be delegated or outsourced. You are your message. From new media to traditional meetings, effective 21st century leaders must master an ever-evolving range of communications expectations.

13. Collaborate to Create Value. The smartest person in the room is always the room. Think, listen, speak, and act accordingly.

14. Create a Stimulating Ecosystem. Have a personal board of advisors. Search out mentors. Comb history for “spiritual ancestors.” Connect with people of accomplishment through social media. Beware flooding your consciousness with a torrent of vacuous, popular culture effluvia.

15. Learn from Other Generations. What are you learning from various generations? Every generation now has a voice. Will you listen and learn?

16. Learn from Other Cultures. A world of customers and competitors and prospects and resources is just a mouse click away. Communicate and collaborate where they are–not where you are.

17. Learn from Public Failures and Mistakes. You’re less likely to have your falls hidden behind the walls of large institutions. Are you able to get off the mat, get back into the ring? Many of your missteps or misfortunes will be captured for eternity in all their digital glory. Get over it.

18. Cultivate an Experimenter’s Mindset. Innovation includes false leads and failures. Today’s failure may be the basis of tomorrow’s breakthrough.

19. Break Boundaries, Silos Wherever They Appear. Don’t let others’ limitations of imagination or experience or customs or organizational culture limit your capacity to serve. 

20. Demand Optimism. Optimism—or negativity—can spread from a leader through her ranks faster than ever. Whether to be publicly optimistic is a leadership decision, not simply a matter of a one’s individual temperament or druthers.

21. Engender Enthusiasm. The universal spirit that flows through enthusiasm remains compelling. The very word is derived from the root, “the spirit of God in man.” Yet another breadcrumb reminder that leadership is, ultimately, a spiritual practice.

22. Be Relentlessly Adaptable. The value of your service is determined by your capacity to evolve in the rapidly unfolding circumstances of the early 21st century. Nonetheless, don’t flatter yourself that your challenges of change are the greatest in history. Thus far, they’re not comparable to those of the generations born at the dawn of the 20th century, for example.

23. Safeguard Your Physical, Mental, and Spiritual health. Your health constitutes the foundation of all your service. Not to maintain your physical health—especially as one becomes older—is to succumb to self-indulgence. Seen in this way, safeguarding your health is a moral duty of the highest order.

24. Think Like an Artist. Leadership is an art. Make every aspect of your experience a part of your evolution.

25. Achieve Integrity. The sum of your parts can be united into a whole that only you can create. Therein lies your calling.

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