What Matters Most in Today’s Leadership


It hardly seems worth noting that the last four years have been turbulent. But a statement by the authors of the article, “The Five New Foundational Qualities of Effective Leadership,” in Strategy + Business did create a moment of pause. They stated, “numerous leaders who were at the top of the CEO succession list in 2019 are no longer deemed fit-for-purpose by company directors. In the 10 to 15% of organizations we have worked with in which the 2019 top successor is still viewed as the best choice, those executives have often made significant, overt shifts in their leadership approaches.” Hard to believe that 85 to 90% of leading candidates to be the next CEOs are no longer considered qualified just a few years later. I am assuming they are also a bit surprised.


The five foundational qualities apparently needed to be in the CEO conversation are not particularly surprising. Three of them deal specifically with change and increasing complexity; “leading with a compass not a map,” “embracing uncertainty as a team sport” and “mastering the matrix” highlight how environments have become even less predictable in recent years. Making adaptability a core competency at the individual and organizational level is every leader’s priority and requires different skills than pushing for greater operational efficiencies.


The other two qualities emphasize what has always been true about the best leaders; “walking the talk” and “being who they say they are.” In times of change, consistency and authenticity are qualities we value even more. Leaders who lack those qualities make it difficult for their teams to take the proactive steps needed to learn what will work when the present does not resemble the past.


Unfortunately, identifying the needed qualities does not ensure selecting the right candidates but it does represent a critically important first step. The selection process must be able to discern the candidates’ true qualities. Although it is generally not hard to determine what leaders really value and their perspective on how the organization should operate. Simply look at how they spend their time, allocate resources, and even who they promote into key leadership positions. Leaders who verbalize priorities and values very different from how they invest their own time and resources are quickly exposed.


New CEOs are not placed into a blank canvass but usually a firmly established organizational culture. Sometimes they are asked to take on the enormous task of radically transforming the culture but more commonly they are expected to build on the positives of the culture. This means identifying candidates who already possess the desired qualities present in the organization.


The authors present two frameworks to help ensure an alignment of values. The first one, the authenticity index, measures if others perceive the leader demonstrating the same values they verbalize. They ask the candidate to choose ten values from a long list that are of most importance and then ask the people working with them to select their top 10 to describe that candidate. A lack of alignment between the two lists clearly communicates there is an authenticity issue.


The second framework, a self-awareness index, helps determine how well the candidates understand their strengths and weaknesses. Their self-identified responses using open ended questions are compared with others who work closely with them. This exercise not only highlights the level of self-awareness but helps decision makers determine if there is the right alignment between the candidate’s strengths and what they perceive are the most important qualities to lead the organization.


The leader’s character is still the most important determinant of whether team members will remain committed during the turbulence of change. Since change is never a straight line of progress, how the leader deals with setbacks and difficulties sets the tone for the rest of the organization. Leaders who fail to both develop organizational change skills and possess a trustworthy character will be unprepared to develop the culture of leadership required to build organizations that thrive in today’s environment.