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The Evolving Manner of Leadership Skills

The Evolving Manner of Leadership Skills

Changing times may require leaders to adapt, but traditional leadership methods may still apply.
The skills necessary to be a good leader are constantly in flux. As new challenges appear, time-tested leadership techniques may no longer apply. Sometimes the “old” way is still the best way. Established and emerging leaders can benefit from knowing when to adjust their leadership style to the changing times, and when a situation is best served by leading with an old-school approach.

No matter where you are in the leadership hierarchy, here are some new-school and old-school leadership traits trending in 2024.

New School: Strategic Focus on Technology

The CEO of a mechanical engineering firm isn’t likely to personally upgrade the company’s server or software programs, but like it or not, we’re all in the high-tech business now. At minimum, leaders should possess a rudimentary understanding of the critical technologies required to run their businesses. Even more important is the ability to delegate, collaborate, and organize the troops to ensure that the company is optimizing its technology investments.

Brian Burnett is a senior consultant with the publishing and management consulting firm PSMJ Resources in Newton, Mass., and the former CEO of a 200-person engineering firm. “Technology used to be somewhat in the shadows,” he said. “Now, with all that happened with COVID, and with AI and other new technologies moving hyper-fast, technology is more in the light. Leaders today need to encourage technological innovation among the workforce. They need to ensure that technology is thoroughly integrated with the strategic plan, and that they’re supporting the company's technology structure and infrastructure. They should also actively recruit with an eye toward technological expertise, outsource when necessary and prioritize training."

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Burnett advises leaders to create technology redundancies to avoid having the sole holder of a key piece of technology walk out and leave a massive hole in their group, office or firm. He also suggests forming a technology committee that taps into the skills and knowledge of staff from across a spectrum of status levels, generations, and areas of responsibility to help guide leadership.

Old School: Transferable Business Acumen

The best leaders have a solid understanding of the factors that determine success or failure in their firm, and they’re willing and able to communicate this important information to others. Kathryn Sprankle, president of Sprankle Leadership, said good leaders ensure everyone in the firm knows exactly how their work contributes to their firm’s specific business goals. This knowledge can guide employees, even at a junior level, to deliver products and services in a way that is most beneficial to the firm.

New School: A Sense of Social Responsibility

Some company leaders have always contributed to society and acted as good corporate citizens, but the emphasis on these attributes grows greater as Millennials and Generation Z account for an increasing percentage of the workforce. Practical policies surrounding issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), sustainability, and climate change are more important to younger generations. Leaders who want to attract and connect with members of these generations–and in some cases, other generations–must thoroughly understand and embrace the values inherent in socially conscious initiatives. Then they must act decisively, creating policies, inspiring action, and endorsing activities consistent with the company’s mission and values. 

Old School: Courage

In his 2009 book, Winning, Jack Welch wrote a masterpiece of business management. If anyone can be credited with “old-school” leadership, it’s the former General Electric CEO. Amid all the changes in business and society, Welch’s view on courage in leadership will always apply.

Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls,” was one of Welch’s 8 Rules of Leadership. "Tough calls spawn complaints and resistance. Your job is to listen and explain yourself clearly but move forward," he said.

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In a profile of Welch, Inc. magazine wrote, “Decision making is ultimately what you'll be judged on as a leader, as your choices could determine the overall success of the organization. With transparency, trust, and a clear vision, you'll find that your team will stand behind your decisions (right or wrong).”

New School: Emotional Intelligence

Exceptional emotional intelligence (i.e., a “high EQ”) has always been a valuable trait for leaders. This may be especially important with engineers whom many perceive, fairly or not, as struggling in this area. In the current business environment, emotional intelligence in leadership has moved from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have” quality.

The five components of emotional intelligence as defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman, who popularized the term, are self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy, and social skills. “Without [emotional intelligence], a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but…still won’t make a great leader,” Goleman said in 1998.

Writing in Forbes in July 2023, entrepreneur and philanthropist Sanjay Sehgal stressed the increasing importance of emotional intelligence in leadership today.

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While, previously, a leader was someone who could only drive a team of followers, today’s leaders are different,” he wrote. “They are self-aware and care about fostering relationships rather than just giving directions. Today’s leaders are more accountable and attuned to their peers and subordinates, and they understand emotions. This understanding and empathetic approach is a direct result of emotional intelligence.”

These are just five of many traits that define good leaders today. Ultimately, the two most important leadership traits may be the ability to define and uphold your values and principles, while also remaining flexible, resilient, and open to change.

Jerry Guerra is an independent writer in Lynnfield, Mass.

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