Leadership trends in 2021

The role of leaders is changing, and in 2021 we can expect three major leadership trends to drive and accelerate this change, all coming from different directions but leading to a single conclusion: leaders will need to shift to a coaching role much faster than we anticipated.

And the way companies manage to anticipate and channel these trends will mark the difference between high and low performers this year.

Here they are:

Trend #1: Automation and AI will not stop, and they are already outperforming leaders in more sectors and tasks than we think

Trend #2: Learning, upskilling and reskilling will be much more connected to performance, with middle managers and L&D having a central role

Trend #3: Covid-19 effects on uncertainty, stress and leadership will be shorter for leaders and companies that develop specific skills faster

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Automation is the new management

At a glance

  • Automation via AI is on the rise, already outperforming managers in some tasks.
  • The amount of people per single manager is increasing
  • Leaders’ focus will shift towards people and away from tasks, faster than we expect
  • Leaders’ impact on company performance will depend more than before on their soft and coaching skills.

The full story

Automation and AI are radically changing the role of managers, taking away admin and control roles from their task, especially in the product- or service-development and service-operations sectors but also in other areas (including talent management and HR).


And if those percentages seem low, put them in context: Covid-19 has pushed companies towards automation and digitalization 20 to 25% faster than they had planned.

Already in 2019 AI was directly responsible for an about 5% increase in earnings for companies.

That trend can only be expected to increase as we go along and with Covid-19 still going on in 2021 that acceleration is likely to go on.


On the one hand this tells us that AI is simply better than leaders at specific tasks – like routine, repetitive tasks, or thinking systematically and consistently, according to David De Cremer, director of the Centre of AI Technology at the University of Singaporebut on the other hand it shows us clearly what role leaders are expected to take in 2021.

“AI is particularly good at repetitive, routine tasks and thinking systematically and consistently. This already implies that the tasks and the jobs that are most likely to be taken over by AI are the hard skills, and not so much the soft skills. An important conclusion is then also that (…) training our soft skills will become even more important.”

David De Cremer

Pair that with the facts that leaders have double the people directly dependent on them that before – and the number is increasing – and you can see how it all pushes in one direction.

Management will be less about tasks and more about people, and high-performing leaders will be expected to be more coaches than managers.

As a result, the human factor that will play a difference is how well and quickly a leader can embody that new role, and how much of a competitive advantage this new breed of leaders can provide.

The rise of the “learning leader”

At a glance

  • Learning becomes more linked to a company’s performance
  • L&D and middle managers are the two key players
  • The major challenge is to bring c-level on board.
  • To do that, numbers, studies and learning outcomes on performance need to be pushed

The full story

According to LinkedIn Learning, HR Managers and L&D are spot on on the job to be done and the key priorities involved.

Specifically they agree that the three game-changing skills for 2021 will be leadership & management, creative problem solving & design thinking, and communication.

Linkedin Learning

All of which is coherent with the new role that leaders need to have.

Leaders seem also to be on the same page, as they spend 30% more time learning soft skills than the average learner.

So it seems learning is (finally) seen as a priority, but as with each priority there is a challenge.

Specifically this challenge is located at companies’ C-Level. While 83% of L&D professionals say their executives support employee learning, only 27% of them say their CEOs are active champions of learning.

And 83% to 27% is a massive gap:

Linkedin Learning

So in other words:

  • Learning will be a priority for organizations, especially given the rise of automation and AI
  • Leaders, HR managers and L&D professionals know this and are willing to invest their time and effort in specific areas
  • The main challenge for all of this to work is to have C-Level on board and make learning a priority.

So if middle-managers drive company performance with how quickly and well they fill their new role, C-Level need to get on board to push and accelerate the process.

This is especially true across generations. Younger employees are more encouraged to learn more if their leader recognizes the importance of their efforts.

Percentage of learners who would spend more time learning if it was recognized by their manager (Linkedin Learning)

If all of this is true, then leaders and L&D managers need to team up:

  • Leaders will need to lead by example and show the effect of learning in practice, as well as encourage their team’s effort in developing new skills
  • L&D managers will need to double down on measuring the effect of learning and bring numbers to their C-level, both from research and from their company. A great place to start for me it’s always been to look at the outcomes of trust at work:
Paul J. Zak – The Neuroscience of Trust

Covid-19’s long-term impact will be shorter for some

At a glance

  • Leaders lack emotional self-regulation skills.
  • Covid-19 is building stress and uncertainty, making emotional self-regulation more difficult
  • Leaders want and need to interact emotionally with their team, but good emotional interaction is based on self-regulation skills
  • Therefore emotional proficiency for leaders becomes a strategic priority

The full story

As part of my work on emotional intelligence for leaders I’ve done some heavy research, and a key outcome came from last year’s answers to my emotional intelligence test.

Of the 40 statement in the assessments, last year leaders agreed with these three statements the most:

  • “I cannot be productive, focus and keep a clear mind when I’m upset, sad or frustrated”
  • “I am easily brought down by another person’s negative attitude”
  • “I start thinking of an answer before the other person is done talking”

This means that the leaders who took the test consider themselves relatively weak in controlling and influencing their own emotional state.

As a matter of fact, emotional self-regulation was the weakest area of emotional intelligence for leaders all together.

However, they also mention their strongest area is to interact at an emotional level with others.

And while 7 percentage points don’t seem like much, there is a lot more to it.

For one, start with the fact that if you compare all the data, you’ll see leaders are much more certain about their emotional interaction skills than other areas, and especially self-regulation:

Excel isn’t fancy in terms of graphics, but it gets the job done.

Translated, this image means that the answers given for emotional interaction were very similar to each other, whereas for self-regulation they were all over the place – which means leaders are much less certain of their self-regulation capabilities on average.

Now, one of the key aspect of emotional intelligence is that the four areas build on each other. The stronger you are in the basic ones, the stronger you will automatically be in the advanced ones.

Put all of this together in the current context and three major patterns appear:

  1. Leaders care about others and want to enable their development and create a healthy environment for their team.
  2. They are not be able to do it as well as they want to if they cannot control their emotional state well.
  3. They may not be aware of that connection and their need to focus on their emotional self-awareness and self-regulation.

Now if you look at last year and everything that happened it’s no surprise that dealing with our own emotional state has become more difficult.

It’s not an easy feat in general, but pair it with the uncertainty, the stress and the changes we had to go through and were not prepared and it really looks like a major task.

As we’ve seen before, though, all trends point in the direction of leaders taking a more people-focused role, and that implies creating a healthy environment for others to work in – remotely or not.

And if that is true, that also means leader need to boost their ability to manage and influence their emotions – as a priority.

In practice this means working on two major areas:

  1. Developing creative leadership and resilience skills and using that knowledge to regulate their stress levels, manage uncertainty and read the dynamics of their environment.
  2. Focusing on emotional self-regulation, learning how to identify their emotional dynamics and using tools and processes to influence their emotional state towards a more positive and constructive one.

That will close that gap and give leaders more awareness of their skill, and also a stronger understanding of how to really interact with their team at an emotional level.

And once that gap is closed, we can reasonably expect team and company performance to increase.

In other words, the faster leaders are in developing this skill, the faster the recovery from Covid-19 effects and the stronger the competitive advantage the whole company will have.

Still not sure where to start? Take a look at these resources for managers, there is something in there for you as well!

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