ATD Blog

The Ever-Expanding Role of the 21st Century Leader

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The economic climate in recent years has tested not only our best leadership skills, but also has caused organizations to re-think how leaders must change and evolve to meet the needs of a changing workforce. 

The primary role of a leader has been to achieve the right results at the right time to keep their organization viable and moving forward. Historically, this role was approached in a rather linear path:

  • define the job to be done
  • assign/delegate the task
  • monitor the work in progress
  • take corrective action as needed
  • try to stay calm
  • keep your boss calm
  • acknowledge when the work was completed
  • do it all over again. 

Curves, Bumps, Dead Ends—and Solutions 

Today, however, that path has expanded. It includes more turns (some sharper than others), as well as significant distractions, speed bumps, and dead ends—as a result of ongoing competitive demands coupled with the dynamics associated with a growing Millennial workforce. 

While the risks associated with these dynamics have increased, the rewards still exist. But to realize those rewards, leaders of the future will need to guide their teams using clear, specific goals and priorities so that everyone “stays on the same page.” 

Comfortable inaction. Leaders in the future must be alert to “comfortable inaction,” which occurs when your unhappiness or discomfort about a particular issue has not quite reached the point where you feel the need to do something.

Leaders achieve results by solving problems when necessary. But no problem is really ever solved when it’s ignored. Problems are best solved when they are acted on while they are still small and less complicated. Comfortable inaction, though, encourages problems to grow and become more complicated and more damaging. 

Indeed, comfortable inaction, especially by people in leadership positions, can be a significant threat to an organization. When work isn’t completed—and when problems go unattended—an organization suffers. It will see decreases in revenues but increases in expenses, loss of market share, and a myriad of other challenges. 

Legacy thinking. In the process of achieving the right results, leaders are often called on to challenge the status quo. When this happens, the need to change is right around the corner. Legacy thinking involves holding on to the ways things are, have been, or how the leader believes they should be. 


When a leader is reluctant to challenge the status quo because they are comfortable with where they are and the results they are achieving, they are positioning the organization for future disaster. These leaders mistakenly think that their current status quo will continue into the future as-is. The failure to recognize legacy thinking can become deadly to any business—big or small—very quickly. 

Kodak is a classic example of the dangers and results of legacy thinking. Many don’t realize that Kodak owned the early patents on the digital process before it became popular. However, because of the large profits being generated from their film business, they ignored the digital marketplace opportunity until it was too late. 

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE once said: “If change is taking place outside of your organization faster than it does inside, the company will be toast.” This sentiment pretty much sums up one of the dangers of legacy thinking. As a leader, one of your primary roles is to change the nature, shape, and form of your organization to adapt or to give it a competitive edge. 

Strong Grasp of Reality + A Specific Vison 

More so than ever before, leaders need to have a strong grasp of their reality coupled with a specific vision of where they want to direct their organization. In the absence of a grasp of reality and a specific vision, a leader has no chance of building a team that is effectively engaged in what needs to be done. 

Getting a team successfully engaged in the “work at hand” has been a challenge for all leaders since the beginning of time—and will become even more important in the future. Engaging workers is especially important as employers of all sizes work to meet the challenges brought on by today’s competitive economic climate and what we see ahead in the foreseeable future. 

Companies with “healthy” employee engagement share the following: 

  • A clear vision that leaders consistently discuss with their team. It’s action, not just words. 
  • Employees are able to describe correctly and consistently the vision and purpose of the organization and who they serve.
  • Employees are emotionally attached to the vision, believe in what they do, and are committed and loyal to the organization. 

To be effective, tomorrow’s leaders will need to focus some of their energy on making sure these factors are included in how they lead their teams. 
Team Education and Development 

So, you need a “great” vision that your team can willingly buy into and adopt. For that to happen, every member of your team must know: 

  1. what they do
  2. when they need to do it
  3. how they need to do it
  4. who they do it for (internal and external customers)
  5. why they do it (this is the most important factor)
  6. where they fit in within their company (so they know that what they do is important and their contribution is valued). 

Most companies do a relatively good job on points 1 to 3. However, the opportunity to build an engaged workforce for the future rests with how well they also address points 4 through 6. But if you can correctly educate and develop each member of your team on these six points, your team will understand how what they do will help make the vision a reality. In turn, they will realize that achieving the vision will fuel their internal motivation to make it happen. 
Snapshot of Future Leaders 

What will the leaders of tomorrow look like? 

First, future leaders will need to be effective communicators and be able to set and monitor priorities. Next, they must adapt well to change (whether anticipated or unexpected) and function effectively in times of uncertainty. They also must be confident in their ability to take action when they have limited or incomplete data. Finally, leaders of the future must be solution-driven with a laser focus to constantly keep moving forward. 

Here are some other mandatory characteristics tomorrows’ leaders will need in order to succeed. 

  • They understand why the “status quo” periodically needs to be challenged.
  • They set and spell out timetables and milestones to measure progress.
  • They show no fear.
  • They never offer or accept excuses.
  • They acknowledge the right actions and say “thank you.”
  • They set performance expectations and hold people accountable to get the job done.
  • They challenge their team to develop them to help them grow and “stretch” their capabilities.
  • They reward the right actions—those that make a difference.
  • They act quickly when poor performance has been identified.
  • They solicit and to listen feedback. 

A Final Word 

The good thing about the future is that you know it’s coming. The next best thing is that you can prepare for it today. What are you waiting for? 

About the Author

Chris Ruisi draws upon his more than 35 years of experience as a senior-level corporate executive to help organizations and individuals achieve dramatic business growth through enhanced leadership and team development. Chris is a nationally recognized professional business and leadership speaker, executive coach, leadership expert, top-ranking author, and radio show host who challenges business leaders to "Step Up and Play Big." Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at

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