The Portrait Of A Future Leader


The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.
-Alvin Toffler

A revolution is happening in the workplace.

A full 43% of Americans will soon leave the workforce as Baby Boomers retire.

The old minority is slowly becoming the new majority: 92% of U.S. population growth is attributed to ethnic groups.

Women are leaving the workforce in droves to start their own businesses.

And, to add to the seismic shift, freelance workers (already 53 million strong) are predicted to make up 40% of the U.S. workforce by 2020.

Additionally, work environments, organizational structures and the motivations behind work have transformed. Historically, organizations were often centralized, with a clear hierarchy. Many decisions followed a linear journey of permission before anything could be decided (cue red tape).

An organization’s success was often black and white — more specifically, the black and white number on the bottom of a Profit & Loss statement. And personal success? That was easy to determine. When you traded in your Toyota for a BMW, when you climbed up the title ladder in your organization, when you moved up the street into a bigger home with a swimming pool — your success was clear as day.

The type of leader that thrived in this type of framework was often stale, pale and male.

But that’s about to change: As an avalanche of change comes to the workplace, leaders must look — and behave — differently.

Doing Away With Hierarchy and Centralization

The future of work will be stripped of centralization. Instead of ladders and chains of command, the future organization will function like an ecosystem — a community of interconnected organisms that all work in conjunction with each other in a complex environment, where members play many roles.

Instead of a centralized company, we will have a holacracy, where authority and decision-making doesn’t travel from top to bottom. Instead, governance will come from self-organizing teams. We’re talking no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy, and most importantly — no need to ask permission from a higher-up. In the future, career movement doesn’t even have an “up.”

Success = Purpose

Success metrics are also shifting drastically. In the future of work, it’s not all about profit. There will be a strong integration of purpose emerging in the workplace. Organizations will need to have purpose-driven values in order to attract talent and stay relevant. That means they’ll need to create a positive impact, and their culture will need to nurture meaningful relationships, provide ample opportunity for personal growth while hitting targeted goals.

Speaking of personal growth, better degrees will no longer lead to better jobs. Brick-and-mortar schools won’t be as important as they once were. Why pay a high price to sit in a classroom listening to a professor when you can learn online for free? Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have flipped the educational institution on its head. Now, anyone can take classes from the best universities without having to ever leave home, and without paying an Ivy League tuition.

That’s right — great leaders will emerge without an MBA.

A Hypothetical Leader of the Future

What will a leader of this diverse ecosystem look like?

As a thought exercise, let’s imagine the future CEO of a successful start-up. We’ll call her Maria.

Maria dropped out of university in her second year to move to Bolivia where she developed relationships with rural artisans in order to start a luxury textile import business. Her career gave her a sense of purpose — she was empowering marginalized women while helping preserve a traditional culture. By the time she moved back to the US, Maria was an expert on import/export trade law, and her business was a great success.

Maria decided she wanted to find a way to help others who like her, found value in helping rural artisans thrive. After a few online courses at Harvard, she worked with a mentor to come up with a business plan. Now, she runs a company made up of a large, evolving team. They sell artisanal goods from over 20 countries through a luxury online marketplace developed in conjunction with a local tech startup.

Maria is younger than the leaders we’re accustomed to, having skipped all those years climbing a corporate ladder. She is entrepreneurial and nimble, has global experience, and is educated in a non-traditional way. Purpose is a major driver for her, and she measures success on more than just her P&L statement.

The 5 Quality Imperative

The skill-set for a leader of the future will look quite different from what we expect from CEOs today. These are the five most important qualities that they’ll need to embody.

1. High Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Leaders of the future will be constantly creating, organizing and dismantling teams. That requires a high EQ because it’s so relational.

What does a leader with a high EQ look like? They’re curious about people they don’t know, aware of their strengths and weaknesses, skilled in active listening, and aware of their own emotional states, enabling them to respond rather than react.

You may ask, “Aren’t these qualities important for today’s leaders?” Of course, but without a centralized and hierarchal structure, organizations and teams will be in constant flux. That requires a lot of relationship building and relationship management, which cannot be done without a high EQ.

2. Proponent of a Purpose-Driven Strategy and Culture

Purpose at work is a major driver for the future of work. Leaders will measure success on more than profit and loss.

Last year, Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy, wrote in The Guardian that we’re “experiencing the rise of the fourth economy in our history, in which a sense of purpose is recognized as a critical human need and driver of innovation.”

He explained that this critical human need was sacrificed in the industrial and technological economies in order to maximize efficiency and scale.

So how does a future leader create a purpose-drive strategy and culture? It starts with valuing more than just profit. He or she must also prioritize the personal development of employees, along with the sense of purpose that each employee embodies, all while continuing to focus on tangible deliverables like targeted goals and bottom-line commitments.

3. Lifelong Learning

Future leaders are entrepreneurial, global, nimble, and educated in a non-traditional way.

We’ve all witnessed how quickly technology has changed the fabric of our world. The increasing global pace of growth only adds to that rapid-fire change. In order to keep pace, a leader must be constantly learning. Whether this happens in the form of MOOCs or peer-to-peer information exchange is irrelevant. What matters is that the leader of the future wants to learn on a continual basis and prioritizes this need for education.

4. Diverse to the Core

Future leaders are not straight, white and male by default.

Today, only 3.8% of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are minorities. This, despite minorities making up a full 36% of the American workforce. In the future, what we consider minorities will be the majority of consumers, clients, employees, and leaders. This requires that the leaders of the future understand their diverse employees and consumers.

5. Entrepreneurial Mindset

Future leaders don’t ask for permission. They make stuff happen and become too good to ignore.

With our new workforce functioning as more of an ecosystem than a pyramid, leaders of the future need to have an entrepreneurial mindset — they need to be agile and innovative. Their ability to pivot, pull teams together quickly, and exhibit out-of-the-box thinking will influence their success in a decentralized structure that is constantly evolving.

Looking closely at each of these qualities, a movement toward humanity in leadership becomes clear. Humanity is key in leading a workforce that thrives on the cultivation of purpose through authentic relationships. Egotistical and authoritarian leaders don’t fit into this paradigm. As Rachel Happe says:

What people do best…. is engage, understand and empathize with other people. That support, understanding and encouragement is what helps people reach their potential — and allows them to create more value together than they can individually.

What does fit into this paradigm, then, are the five qualities I outlined above. It is with these qualities that a leader can make a meaningful impact on the vividly diverse and evolving ecosystem that is the future workforce.

Illustrations by Kim Roselier


Work: Reimagined is a series of sponsored stories dedicated to exploring the evolution of the workplace.

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