Leading Into the Future

As our world and the nature of work fundamentally changes, leaders must consider necessary new skills and accompanying mindset shifts.

Reading Time: 6 min 


Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy

Digitalization and other critical factors are transforming what it means to be a great leader in a new environment. Discover the cultural and strategic shifts organizations must embrace to prepare their leaders to succeed.


See All Articles in This Section

Changes in the world and workplace mean a shift from traditional leadership to one led by digital transformations. In order to execute effective leadership in a digital world, leaders must embrace key changes rooted in factors like technology, demographics, and cultural norms while retaining the enduring and contextual characteristics of leadership. This may necessitate a mindset shift moving forward.

Will I be ready to lead in 2025?

I’m wondering how many of us are asking this question of ourselves. After all, 2025 is less than a decade from now, and if you are like me, you have probably invested a good deal of time reflecting on your own experiences and what others have taught you about the art and craft of leadership and what it means to be an effective leader. Those reflections, experiences, and observations have served us reasonably well as we’ve learned how to lead in today’s world. But what about leading in tomorrow’s world? What will it take to be a great leader five years from now, let alone 10? As I’ve pondered this question, I think, surely, things won’t change so dramatically that I won’t be able to keep up. Fundamentally, leadership is leadership, right? In the end, it’s all about crafting a vision and strategy, motivating people to execute that strategy for customers, and delivering superior value for investors. End of story.

But is it? Consider the case of RBC, the Canadian financial services giant. Over the past few years, it has been engaged in a comprehensive digital transformation of how it provides services to its clients and customers. Only recently, however, did RBC’s leadership come to terms with the notion that to fully execute its digital transformation, it needed leaders who fully embrace and understand how to compete and lead in the new economy. As such, the company has completely transformed its leadership model and its talent strategy. Those who are excited about and capable of embracing the future will comprise RBC’s future leadership ranks.

Or, consider the observations Alan Mulally, legendary CEO of Ford and Boeing Commercial Airplanes, shared with me about his own leadership style. Earlier in his career, Mulally’s view of an effective leader was someone who was in charge, who fully grasped the challenges facing the organization, and who was clear in providing direction and guidance when needed. It was only after one of his top managers left the company because he felt micromanaged by Mulally that he came to realize that great leaders unleash the talents of their people rather than try to harness them.

Let’s be clear: The challenge isn’t just about how to change the leadership profile for larger companies that have been around for 100 years or more. Brian Halligan, CEO and cofounder of HubSpot, a social media marketing and web analytics company, is fond of saying that he spends perhaps half of his time worrying about who will lead the company over the next decade — and this is a company that is barely a decade old! Halligan points out that the average age of a HubSpot employee is mid-20s, so it’s important for the company’s leaders to understand what motivates this generation and what leadership style will work most effectively.

These examples trigger a variety of important questions about the future of leadership, our preparedness as individuals to be up to the challenge, and the readiness of organizations to cultivate the next generation of those who will lead. Those include:

  • What key changes in the world around us (for example, digitalization, AI and machine learning, globalization, demographics, societal and cultural norms) will influence what it means to be a great leader?
  • What will be the distinguishing characteristics of great leaders in the future? What will they do differently, do better, or stop doing? How will they behave differently? Will they think differently about their approach to leading?
  • What organizational policies and practices will facilitate the identification and development of a next generation of leaders? Beyond policies and practices, what kind of organizational culture and climate will be needed to enable this new leader profile to emerge more organically?
  • As the very nature of what it means to be a company changes, and as the nature of work and ways of working change, will the demands of leadership be met by more art than craft?

The Enduring and Contextual Characteristics of Leadership

So, given the changes and examples mentioned above, it would be easy to disregard my question “Leadership is leadership, right?” as purely old-world thinking. But let’s take a moment to consider this. Regardless of the changing seas leaders are trying to navigate every day — technology, demographics, society, geopolitical shifts, and cultural norms — certain traits, attributes, and behaviors remain critically important components of what it takes to be a great leader. Integrity, for example, will never diminish in importance, nor will character, courage, the capacity to execute, or customer zeal. These are what I refer to as the enduring characteristics of leadership.

It is also true that our world is changing so rapidly and so fundamentally that we can only imagine what it might look like and feel like a decade from now. So it should come as no surprise that in addition to these enduring characteristics, there will be new demands on those who will lead next-generation companies and a next-generation workforce. Moreover, these new demands will likely change in response to the key influencers mentioned above. For example, as more companies globalize, leading teams will increasingly mean leading geographically dispersed and multicultural teams.

As millennials increasingly populate not only the workforce, but management and leadership ranks as well, where we work, when we work, and how we work will continue to change. And as business models increasingly become digitalized and powered by analytics and algorithms, leaders will need to completely rethink their talent strategies and whether they will try to harness, coordinate, or unleash their most valuable human assets. These new demands are what I refer to as the contextual characteristics of leadership. So, whereas crafting a vision and a strategy is an enduring leadership characteristic, doing so in a transparent, inclusive, and collaborative manner is a contextual characteristic, given the expectations of the new workforce. Great leaders will need to more artfully merge the “what” with the “how” to thrive in tomorrow’s world.

The Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy Big Ideas Initiative

This blog is the beginning of a yearlong examination of what it will take to be a great leader. MIT Sloan Management Review will serve both as the platform for what I hope will be a comprehensive, interactive, and global initiative to examine many of the questions posed in this piece, and as an important research partner in the process. Cognizant, one of the world’s leading voices on digital transformation and thriving in the new economy and the changing world of work, is serving as our collaboration partner on this project. I will serve as the principal researcher and guest editor for what will become a truly agenda-setting project on the future of leadership in the digital economy.

We will gather the views of thousands of people from around the world, and I hope to interview dozens of both current and future leaders to test this notion that there are both enduring and contextual characteristics of what it takes to be a great leader in this rapidly changing world. This is your invitation to engage with us. I started by asking myself the simple question, “Will I be ready to lead in 2025?” I think if you ask yourself that same question, you’ll want to join us on this journey!


Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy

Digitalization and other critical factors are transforming what it means to be a great leader in a new environment. Discover the cultural and strategic shifts organizations must embrace to prepare their leaders to succeed.


See All Articles in This Section

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comments (7)
Subramaiam Ponnusamy
Great article. It was really a game changer for the future leaders who would transform technology and cultural changes collectively in the emerging digital world for the future generation.
Himanshu Sharma
I am really want this series to learn about this subject.

Really a good article.
George Murage
Good intro looking forward to more articles that flesh out this important topic.
Allison Ryder
Isabella, thank you for this comment! If you'd like to opt in to specific updates about this topic, we will be contacting you with that option soon.
john decker
Interesting, if incomplete post, look forward to future posts on the subject.

Let's start with a clearer definition of leadership, one taken from  John Quincy Adams: If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more you are a leader. this is from  the late 1700s, still applies today, and will apply even more so in the future.

We can't predict the future so we need to embrace agile concepts of seeking out changes, evaluating their import, and adjusting our learning on a continuous basis. Assume as a leader that we will need to be learning (and unlearning) continuously.

Couple of other thoughts: the pendulum is slowly swinging toward more enlightened and ethical leadership. building a strong ethical foundation is critical.

There is a major shift in work as disruptive as the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, the industrial revolution, the digital revolution, and the recent AI revolution. Society  and it's leaders need to address the potential for massive employment disruption, preferably with major training budgets, but that appears unlikely.

The balance is shifting toward transparency with the disintermediation of information sources. Secretiveness and power through control of information will not work in the future.

Exciting times!
Terry Bennett
I'm really looking forward to reading this series.  I have been writing about this very subject recently.  For example:

- New Leadership Behaviors Needed for Digital Era Success (http://www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/new-leadership-behaviors-needed-digital-era-success/)

As a student of leadership for many years, I am anxious to read what you have to say on this.  You've gotten off to an excellent start!
Isabella Brancher
Very interesting article... I will follow future publications. Isabella Brancher