Looking ahead road hero

Looking Ahead by Looking Behind: 7 Ways Leadership Has Evolved

In early 2017, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) published a forecast, 14 Future Leadership Capabilities to Plan for Now. It was based on the collective smarts of the organization’s research team, thought leaders, and several senior executives representing companies in i4cp’s member network. The overall theme and advice four years ago was to prod organizations to prepare leaders for what’s ahead by recruiting, developing, and recruiting differently. 

At the time, a new president was taking office, Tom Brady had just won the Super Bowl and the Zika virus topped the CDC list of health risks in the new year. Fast forward to early 2021: a new president is taking office, Tom Brady has just won the Super Bowl, and as for the CDC, well, another new virus squarely tops the health risk list. 

So how did the i4cp crystal ball predictions of 2017 compare to the reality of 2020? 

Not bad at all, given the recently revealed findings from Leadership Redefined—i4cp’s current comprehensive global study of what leadership behaviors mattered most to high-performance organizations in 2020 and beyond. I found four hits and three close-enough accelerators when comparing the 2017 Future Leadership Capabilities brief to the 2021 Leadership Redefined findings

The Hits:

Boundaryless collaboration
A clear theme of 2017’s Future Leadership Capabilities study centered on new ways of collaborating, breaking down silos, and working across boundaries. The current study found that the most successful organizations of 2020 saw the importance of leaders who did the same—breaking down silos as well as quickly sharing learning and best practices across the enterprise. It was a year in which the formal organization charts and traditional procedures mattered less; getting the right people together to learn from each other and make speedy decisions locally mattered more. 

Communication and relationships
Serving as a “conscientious connector and communicator” and being culturally agile in mindset and communications were critical capabilities identified in 2017. The current study is aligned, with top valued leadership behaviors including: keeping others informed, using appropriate communication tools, and listening, empathy and maintaining positive relationships. 

Using technology well
In near Nostradamus-like prescience, the 2017 study called for leaders to actively utilize technologies to engage, communicate and collaborate, while the 2020 edition found top-cited behaviors organization leaders modeled were the use and application of technology and new media to connect and collaborate.  

Betting on talent
Developing talent, architecting talent planning, and orchestrating innovative sources of talent were three capabilities promoted from the 2017 future leadership study. Interestingly, even with all the turbulence during 2020, developing talent to address business need and sponsoring top talent for opportunities became more important according to the 2021 Leadership Redefined findings.

What Accelerated: 

Diversity, well-being, and the digital world
In fairness, the 2017 crystal ball was a bit hazy on a few priorities that accelerated in importance in 2020; diversity was woven into a number of predicted top capabilities. but clearly was not as central as we found in 2020. Employee safety and well-being were overwhelmingly top themes of the more important actions for successful leaders in 2020.  

Interestingly, the 2017 study referred to a mindful capability to regularly be introspective to cope and react best in situations but fell short of what great leaders actually did in 2020 to keep employees feeling safe, cared for, and a sense belonging.  

Finally, the 2020 findings found the importance of preparing the workforce for application and impact of a digital world to be critical while the earlier study provided a few indirect hints at what was coming, but certainly not the major digital acceleration we experienced in 2020. 

And four years from now?

I look forward to reading i4cp’s 2025 take on the future of leadership. Chances are some things we see in the crystal ball today will be even clearer in the years ahead.  

For now, my advice to leaders is to consider doubling down on your leadership capability development in such areas as new ways to collaborate, relationship building, accelerated technology use, and strategic talent development.  

Keep transforming your culture for future-focused success in such areas as strong DEI, greater employee well-being and digital savvy. And as far as the 2025 president, Super Bowl winner, and CDC risk, my Magic Eight-Ball is showing “Reply hazy, try again later.”

Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business adviser with i4cp and former Chief Learning Officer at General Mills

Kevin Wilde
Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business advisor to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and currently serves as an executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota. His prior 34-year corporate career includes serving as the head of learning and talent management at General Mills. Chief Learning Officer magazine named him CLO of the Year in 2007. His most recent award-winning book is, “Coachability: The Leadership Superpower.”