The Remaking of the Contemporary Leader

A significant, accelerating shift in the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) for senior leadership that began about 15 years ago is now broadly complete and has resulted in a fundamental change in the necessary leadership profile for success in contemporary organizations. At a high level, the evolution has primarily been from “technical” skills and a top down decision making style related to process to “soft” skills related to leading people and organizations through high change environments and facilitating success in others. The shift is also broadly related to the traits and characteristics that support leaders themselves in complex, ambiguous, and even volatile operating contexts.

What drove the change?

There are many factors that have rendered much of the historical leadership model close to obsolete, but the primary drivers are:

The Pace of External Change

This includes competition, globalization, disruptive influences (automation, outsourcing), macroeconomics, the diminishing shelf life of ideas, technology, and market advantages, etc.

Demographic and Cultural Changes within Organizations

This includes the diversification of the workforce, influence of millenials, evolving beliefs and values, and changing employee needs among other factors.


Although technology is a component affecting both external and internal change, it is also a factor driving the evolution in leadership profiles in its own right because it has dramatically changed how people work together and communicate, business models, competition, training, data analysis, automation, and a host of other factors that compromise stability in organizations.

How do the old and new models compare?

The reality is that traditional leadership models are not only much less effective, they can actually be detrimental in contemporary organizations because top down decision making, a focus on process rather than people, and the products of cognitive vs. emotional intelligence can actually alienate employees, compromising performance, and in some cases, driving them out of the organization. Obviously, no leader falls 100% in either the old or new paradigm, but the demands of contemporary leadership are far more effectively met by the KSAs of the new model because it is less about the technical skills or task completion of the leader him or herself and more about how she or he facilitates success in others. It also does a much better job of recognizing and supporting the humanity in organizations, which supports human capital development and teamwork. And that is probably the single greatest competitive advantage an organization can have! A partial list of many of the discreet differences is below.

Old Leadership Model New Leadership Model
Egocentric Vulnerable/altruistic
Success through self Success through others
Expert Coach/partner
Isolated Accessible
Authoritarian Empowering
Talks Listens
Top down Distributed
Guards information Empowers with information
Directive Collaborative
Empirical Analytical
Objective Intuitive/self-aware
Process expert People expert
Transactional Transformational
Risk averse Risk tolerant
Data driven Data generating
Technical skills Soft skills
Finance skills Financial literacy
Cognitive intelligence Emotional intelligence
Internal influence Internal and External influence
Process manager Change manager
Controls complexity Manages complexity
Results oriented Sustainability oriented
Planner Strategist
Avoids conflict Supports healthy conflict
Fears ambiguity Embraces  ambiguity
Manager Leader

In some cases, leaders benefit by leveraging elements of both the old and new paradigms. For example, if someone is fortunate enough to possess both high IQ and high EQ, that is certainly advantageous. Likewise, being results oriented and focused on sustainability is clearly value added. Leaders and leadership styles are not binary. However, the environments in which leaders have to perform today are so dramatically different than even 15 years ago, that they, and their organizations, are much better served by those who are broadly skewed to the new paradigm.

Unfortunately, while the literature in the field is slowly recognizing the profound changes required for successful, contemporary leadership, leadership training is, broadly speaking, still significantly behind the curve. Most leaders who benefit from the knowledge, skills, and abilities found in the new model are naturally disposed to the construct or have evolved over time through their own professional development efforts. They are also generally quite unique and reflect the leading edge of leadership practice. It is because most leaders do not, in fact, fit the new model, that so many are struggling today, turnover is high, and organizations find themselves ill prepared for contemporary challenges.

Surprisingly, one continuing barrier to the adoption of more progressive leadership behaviors across organizations is the culture that is still present in many environments. Culture is powerful and while a board of directors or an executive team might use the right language when discussing leadership needs, a minority of organizations and contexts are truly ready to support senior and executive level leaders who embrace vulnerability and are genuinely transparent or empowering or focused on sustainability over short term results. That will change over time, but for now, a core additional challenge for progressive leaders is overcoming the “old” thinking in their own organizations, boards, and industries!


Because the success of most contemporary leaders is so dependent on the success of others in an organization, in addition to possessing a critical mass of “new leadership” characteristics, leaders today must also be very good at assessing the skills, knowledge and abilities of the managers and employees who work with them. There may have been a time in which a leader could get by with less competent colleagues, but current challenges are so complex and daunting that most key positions have to be filled by “A” players in order for the organization and its leadership to realize sustainable success. Relatedly, while traditional managers drive behavior with positional authority, contemporary leaders influence behavior with their own passion and ability to meaningfully connect with others in the organization.

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