In this (rather long) post I'm going to be giving you an alphabetical list of exactly which skills I think every next-generation leader needs to develop. Even if you have no leadership experience yet, you will find that you have some of these skills already (trust me on this).
Don't let the picture frighten you, by the way. You will need strength, agility and poise, but not in the way these guys have it - unless you lead a team of gymnasts or dancers...
My aim in providing this list is to get you to think about the type of leader you want to be, and your reasons for wanting to lead.
The term "next-generation leader" has been around for a while. It was originally used by Andy Stanley when he wrote the book of the same name (affiliate link) in 2002. In that book he sums up nine characteristics that he believes next-generation leaders need to possess, as follows:
Andy's thoughts have been worked on and developed by him and by others in the years since then but sadly it seems that there are still far too many leaders still doing things the old way while the world around them has moved on.
Some of that is, I'm sad to say, down to organisations expecting and rewarding the old-fashioned "command and control" style of leadership.
I have personal experience of designing and delivering "next-generation" style leadership programs that were made useless because the organisation continued to reward and promote leaders who displayed very "old-school" leadership behaviours that went directly against what they had been taught.
Having said that, at least those leaders were getting some kind of training and development.
I have come across too many people that would dearly like some idea of what a leader is supposed to do so that they can step up to a leadership role, but have never been offered the opportunity to develop the necessary skills.
Perhaps you're one of them?
If you are, then you can use this list as a starting point to develop your own Personal Leadership Development Plan.
This list is just a starting point, and before you get reading I need to point out a couple of things.
There’s no jargon in this post or any of my work
You won’t ever find me using words like synergy or granularity or (my particular pet hate) going forward.
Jargon sounds impressive to the untrained ear.
Lots of people use it because it makes them feel like a member of the leadership club and in some organisations it’s sadly still a requirement if you want to be taken seriously.
Using jargon is also a very effective way of both shutting out other people who aren’t members of your gang, and of hiding the fact that you don’t really understand what you’re talking about.
Using jargon creates cynicism and confusion amongst those on the receiving end because these days everyone is wise to it.
So my first promise to you is no jargon.
I will never tell you that you need to get all your ducks in a row…
This is not an MBA or a Business Studies degree
I’m not going to teach you accounting or business law or project management or any of that stuff because that stuff is done far better by other people.
You’ve probably already had a bellyful of it anyway and you’re reading this right now because you’re looking for something else.
This is your something else.
This list is about you.
It’s about nurturing and enhancing the skills and potential you already have inside you so that you can develop into the kind of person that people instinctively want to listen to and get behind.
I firmly believe that you have everything you need to become one of the next generation of leaders already within you so I’ve created this list to enable you to work out what steps to take next on your path towards ethical ascendancy.
Ready to get started?
Then off we go.
is for Authenticity
You are the only you there ever has been or ever will be.
You are a unique individual with your own way of being and doing and that’s who the world needs you to be.
Back in the olden days when I first started out people were expected to turn themselves into someone they didn’t like or know in order to advance their careers but the world has (thankfully) moved on now. People are far wiser these days and they are not prepared to do what they are told just because someone in a position of authority thumps on the desk and tells them to. Especially if that someone has lost all sense of who they really are.
If you want people to want to follow you (and let’s face it, you’re not a leader if there’s no one following you) you have to let them get to know the real you, warts and all.
You can’t do that unless you get to know yourself first of all.
In order to be your full authentic self you need to do some deep exploration of what makes you, well...you... so that you can harness and control your abilities and learn to overcome the things that hold you back.
This is my favourite quote on the subject of being authentic.
I love it so much that I had it up on the wall by the front door so that my children would read it every day when they went to school and came home again.
It’s often misattributed to Nelson Mandela because he used part of it in a speech, but it’s actually by Marianne Williamson from her wonderful book “A Return to Love”. (affiliate link)
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others"
How authentic are you in your life and your leadership?
is for Bravery
I don’t hear many people talking about the bravery of stepping up to be a leader but I think we should acknowledge that it takes guts to say “Yes, I think I’m good enough”.
(As an aside, when you do that you may be surprised to find how many people are just waiting to tell you that you’re wrong, and to gloat when you make a mistake. There will always be people that don’t like to see others succeed. They won’t have read Marianne Williamson. Don’t let them put you off and please don’t ever become one of them.)
It takes bravery to put yourself out there and it also takes bravery to do that deep exploration of yourself that I talked about before.
It’s not easy work and not everyone has the courage to do it.
If you do have the courage then great, read on.
If you don’t think you have, read on anyway because by the time you get to the end of the list you might find that you’ve changed your mind.
What's the bravest thing you've done as a leader?
is for Collaborating
Leadership used to be about telling people what to do.
Lots of people seem to think it still is. In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Why Leadership Development isn’t Developing Leaders” Deborah Rowland says this:
“The vast majority of leadership programs are set curricula delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individual-focused methods. Participants are taken out of their day-to-day workplaces to be inspired by expert faculty, work on case studies, receive personal feedback, and take away the latest leadership thinking (and badges for their résumés). Yet study after study, including my own, tells us the qualities that leaders in today’s world need are intuitive, dynamic, collaborative, and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.”
You won’t be a successful leader in this new world of ours if you can’t collaborate effectively.
The old idea that knowledge is power is no longer acceptable and you’d be a fool if you thought that to be an effective leader these days you have to have all the answers.
Collaborate or die is the name of the game these days.
How do you role model the importance of collaboration?
is for Decisiveness
There comes a point when the collaborating has to stop and someone has to decide what to do. When you’re the leader that someone is you, so how good are you at making decisions?
We all make decisions every hour of every day but not that many of us take the time to work out how and why we make the decisions that we do.
Without the self-exploration I talked about earlier you won’t be able to enhance your decision-making skills because you won’t understand the hidden tricks and traps your mind has been playing on you that have been affecting your decision-making processes all this time.
What do you currently use as the basis for your decision-making?
is for Emotional Intelligence
E very nearly stood for empathy if I’m honest but in the end I decided that you can’t develop empathy if you have no emotional intelligence so here we are.
We each have a certain level of emotional intelligence and we can all learn to develop it.
Emotional intelligence is about being able to
- understand and manage your own emotions
- recognise and respond appropriately to other people's emotions
- recognise the difference between different feelings and give them the right names
- use your understanding of feelings and emotions to guide how you think and how you behave
- manage and/or control your emotions depending on what’s going to be most helpful in any given situation.
When you decide to start working towards developing the leadership skills I've outlined in this list your Emotional Intelligence will increase as a direct result.
How often are you aware of, and in control of, the emotions you are experiencing and they impact they are having on your behaviours?
is for Failing
I dare say you haven’t seen failing on a list of must-have skills very often, if ever, but bear with me.
One of the biggest inhibitors I’ve seen to great leadership is the inability to accept failure.
Back in the day when leadership was about command and control too many people took that to mean that they had to be right about everything all the time. Sometimes this was a way of hiding their own fears and insecurities, sometimes it was because they thought that tolerating failure from others meant they were weak leaders.
Whatever the reasons, given the pace of change these days, leaders need be able to not just tolerate but in some cases actively encourage failure.
How do you help people learn from their failures, and how do you recognise, accept and learn from your own failures?
is for Generosity
Have you heard of paying it forward?
The idea is that, rather than waiting for someone to do you a good turn and then reciprocating, we should all make the effort to take the first step and give others a helping hand, without wanting anything in return.
The more help and support you give to others the better you will feel and the more your self-esteem will rise.
And as a leader the more giving and generous you can be - with your time, your ideas, your support and your attention - the more willing your people will be to follow you.
is for Humility
No-one likes a smartarse and no-one likes a know-it-all.
The more senior you get the further removed you will find yourself from the people actually doing the work.
Too many leaders make the mistake of thinking that their seniority confers on them some god-like ability to know best. These leaders end up making decisions that actively impede their front-line staff from doing their jobs effectively and then complain when the business suffers.
Wise leaders are humble enough to know that they can’t possibly know everything so they prioritise spending time with and learning from people at all levels of the organisation.
is for Innovation
Even if you don’t think of yourself as being particularly innovative or creative, as a leader today you need to have a mindset that encourages others to innovate.
This is where being able to accept failure is so important - innovation is about experimenting, working out what went wrong and then doing another experiment and so on.
Leaders who are afraid of failure, or of exposing their own lack of knowledge, will tend to stifle creativity. As a result their organisation will stagnate and their best people will leave because they’ll get bored.
What do you do to keep your thinking fresh and to encourage innovation in others?
is for Justice
The dictionary definition of just is “guided by truth, reason, justice and fairness...done according to principle; equitable; proper”.
That all sounds fine and I expect you have a good idea of what you consider to be just and fair in most situations.
Unfortunately, as you may already have found, the rest of the world may not agree with you.
Leadership can be a lonely task when you have to make decisions that others consider to be unjust and even more so when you are compelled to do things that you consider to be unjust.
In those moments it will be of enormous benefit to you to have done the work to understand your own values and your own personal definition of justice, so that you can reassure yourself that you are doing what you consider to be just, and so that you can explain your reasoning to others.
What does justice look and feel like to you?
is for Kindness
Another odd one, perhaps, but I believe that kindness is a vastly under-rated skill in business.
I’m not talking about being a soft-touch or a wimp but I’ve come across far too many people in leadership positions who seem to leave their human qualities at home when they come to work.
I remember one individual who prided himself on being a strong, forceful leader. The unfortunate people that worked for him thought he was a bully and a nasty piece of work. Those that knew him out of work couldn't reconcile his work persona with the kind, gentle family man they knew him to be. Once he started working with a coach he came to realise not just the impact of his behaviours on his people but also the impact of his assumptions about how a leader “should” behave on himself.
Kindness is always an option and often the solution.
How well do you incorporate kindness into your leadership behaviours?
is for Listening
When I trained to become a coach I found that learning to listen properly to other people had a transformative effect on every aspect of my life.
It has made me a better parent, a better daughter, a better sister, a better partner, a better friend and yes, a better leader.
When you learn to really listen - not just to what is said but also to what is left unspoken, made fun of, dismissed, denied, obsessed over etc etc - you gain a far richer and more productive insight into how other people perceive the world.
When you learn to actively listen, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak, you will find your ability to help the people you lead will be radically enhanced.
I believe all next generation leaders should be effective coaches, and learning to listen properly is the bedrock of that skill set.
How often do you find yourself waiting for you turn to talk, rather than really listening?
is for Mentoring
Good leaders are also good mentors. They have an active desire to nurture and bring out the potential in those around them - and not just the so-called “high-flyers”.
Every individual on this planet has the potential to develop their skills, knowledge and attitude in order to become more effective in some way and as a leader you have a unique gift at your disposal - the gift of your experience. There are people out there that might blossom under your guidance so make the time to seek them out and support them.
And don’t forget that it’s a two-way street.
You will find it of enormous value to have a mentor or mentors yourself and if you’re not yet sure what you might offer as a mentor yourself then I recommend you start by getting one or two of your own.
Identify potential mentors in each sphere of your life: one at work, one in your church/temple/mosque, one in your voluntary/community/political group etc.
Look for people with the following qualities:
- A positive reputation for being able to influence those in authority
- Values that seem to be in tune with your own
- Experience that you can learn from
Once you’ve chosen your potential mentor all you have to do is ask them to mentor you and tell them why you’ve chosen them.
I guarantee you they will be flattered and pleased to have been asked, and even if they don’t feel able to mentor you for whatever reason, you will have made an influential ally at a more senior level.
Who would you choose to have as your mentor? Who could you offer mentoring to?
is for Negotiating
Unfortunately a lot of people seem to believe that effective leadership entails entering into any negotiation with the intention of crushing the opposition underfoot and leaving in triumph while wiping the blood of their hands.
They pride themselves on their “hard-nosed” approach and their “take no prisoners” attitude.
They are idiots.
Other people find the whole idea of negotiating repellent, and tend to roll over and die rather than enter into what they perceive to be a conflict situation.
The most effective negotiators go in looking for a win-win situation. They take the time to understand the other party’s position and aim to collaborate in order to reach an agreement that suits both sides.
Which type of negotiator would you rather be?
is for Openness
The next generation of leaders need to be open to everything - to new ideas, new behaviours, new thinking, new opportunities, new ways of being.
As I write this there’s a lot of talk about “disrupters” and how businesses and bosses need to get comfortable with them because that’s what so-called Millennials want and expect.
I say that as a next generation leader yourself you need to BE a disrupter.
Open yourself up.
Explore new things.
Ask difficult questions.
Expect great things.
And provide the whole-hearted support that has to go alongside open-minded disruption.
What needs to change for you to feel comfortable with openness?
is for Persuasiveness
Whether you like it or not when you become a leader people are going to be looking to you for inspiration.
They actively want you to tell them not just what to do but also why.
This will become a problem for you if you’ve never learnt how to be persuasive. As with so many of the skills on this list you can learn to be persuasive and you can do it in a way that is ethical, authentic and in tune with your personality.
You can, of course, also learn how to become a snake-oil salesman but people see through that really quickly and never trust you again, so I don’t recommend it.
I’m not going to spend too much time here on how to become persuasive because I don’t believe it’s something you learn as a stand-alone thing, unless you’re becoming a snake-oil salesman.
The kind of persuasiveness I want you to learn will come about naturally as you develop your emotional intelligence, your negotiating skills, your openness, your authenticity and so on and so on.
For now, your task is to work on developing those skills and to take note of the people you encounter that you consider to be the types of leader you would like to be.
Consider why they seem persuasive to you - is it what they say, how they say it, the way they conduct themselves, and so on.
Build up an idea in your mind of what it might be like to be persuasive in the way that the leaders you admire are persuasive and then think about what you might need to do differently in order to be like that.
Who is your persuasiveness role model?
is for Questioning
One of the best leadership lessons I ever learned was way back in the day when, as a junior civil servant, I was shadowing a senior leader who I’ll call Bob.
We went to a number of meetings including one with two guys from a start-up. They had designed a piece of software and had asked to demonstrate it to Bob with the aim of getting him to buy it.
They launched into a very slick presentation, heavy on acronyms and jargon. It was very technical and I didn't understand a word of it but I assumed that was down to my lack of knowledge.
After a couple of minutes though Bob stopped them and asked them to explain one of their acronyms.
They told him what it stood for and he asked “but what does that mean? I don’t understand.”
I was flabbergasted because up to that point I had never heard anyone in authority admit that they didn't understand something.
I was to learn more because the more questions he asked, the more apparent it became that the guys from the start-up didn't really know what they were talking about.
Being willing to ask questions will help you, it will help the people working with you and it will set a shining example to the people that look up to you.
Just make sure the questions come from a place of genuine enquiry. That’s what Bob did and he made sure the start-up guys didn't feel belittled or patronised by his questions while leaving them in no doubt about the extra work they needed to do before their software was ready.
Over the next week, whenever a question pops into your head, find a way to ask it.
I say find a way because some questions need to be phrased more carefully than others and some don’t need to be asked.
Being on the plump side I have, more than once, been on the receiving end of the “When’s the baby due?” question when I’d just been at the pies.
Embarrassing for all concerned.
I’m talking about asking the type of questions that will open up the debate, provide clarity move things on, lead to fresh ideas and so on.
If you find yourself holding back from asking a question ask yourself why.
Are you frightened of causing offence? Frightened of looking stupid? Worried about speaking up in public?
Whatever is blocking you, remind yourself that it’s very likely that other people will benefit from hearing the answer and that in asking the question for them you’re stepping into a leadership role.
is for Resilience
Make no mistake, leadership can be tough.
It can be lonely and frightening and sometimes you’ll have to do things and have conversations that you’d really rather avoid.
There will be times when it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you’d much rather stay in bed in your jammies eating endless rounds of toast, but as a leader you can’t do that.
Obviously if you’re ill you need to stay at home and recover (and actually that sends a really powerful message right there to your people that you expect them to take good care of themselves when they’re ill) but you need to develop the resilience to strap your boots on, nail on a smile and get stuck in when the going gets tough.
I'm not talking about becoming an emotionless machine when I talk about developing resilience, far from it. For me, this is another aspect of emotional intelligence and it's about learning to accept and accommodate the difficult feelings that you will experience in a way that stays true to who you are and doesn't leave those difficult feelings to fester away somewhere until they burst out and spoil everyone's day.
What are you doing to cultivate resilience?
is for Storytelling
Human beings have always loved to listen to stories.
It’s been a primal form of bonding for us ever since language was invented and many of humanity’s oldest myths and legends go back way beyond the creation of written languages.
We tell and listen to stories all the time - television, film and theatre are story-telling media and we are comfortable within the confines of a story because we have an innate understanding of how stories are structured.
As a leader you can use storytelling skills to enhance your presence, get buy-in, engage your audience and increase followership.
And it’s not just about having a story to tell, it’s about learning the techniques to enable you to tell your story in a way that is compelling and authentically you, even if you secretly believe that you’ve been given a charisma bypass and the thought of presenting to an audience makes you want to throw up.
I witnessed a startling transformation once. I was coaching a senior executive who had been asked to give a presentation on the subject of "What Gets Me Up In The Morning". He was to present to a group of newly promoted leaders and the idea was for him to share his passion for his job with them.
This was completely new ground for him. He was a fearsomely talented technical specialist, but an extremely private man and the thought of speaking so personally made him genuinely fearful.
So I coached him through it. We explored what made him feel anxious and worked together on how to construct a presentation that allowed him to be honest without feeling exposed. We talked through the impact he wanted to have on his audience and the possible outcomes - and when the time came he told his story in a presentation that came direct from the heart and provoked a profound response to him as an individual.
His reputation within the organisation changed for the better as a result of the story he told that day.
How well do you tell stories?
is for Truthfulness
First of all let me say that, other than in the case of objective facts such as “granite is a type of stone” or “milk expands when you freeze it”, most things that we think of as being true are actually only true to us based on our own subjective perceptions of the world around us.
You only have to live through an election campaign to experience how many different interpretations and understandings of “the truth” about a particular “fact” there can be, and let's not get started on "alternative facts" or "post-truth narratives".
But when I talk about truthfulness as a leadership skill I’m talking about being true to the core of who you are.
I’m talking about not compromising your principles, about being mindful and about helping other people to understand and stand firm in their own truthfulness, even when it differs from yours.
You may not always agree with someone else’s truth but you can remain mindful and respectful of their right to maintain that truth (unless they are an obvious troll or spammer, in which case I'll hold your coat while you go get 'em).
Back in the day this was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned. I was convinced that my truth was the only one and that anyone that didn't agree with me was just plain wrong, and probably an idiot to boot.
It felt like the world had flipped over the day I learned different, and it was a mighty humbling experience which shook me to my core, but it got me started on the path that has eventually led me to where I am today.
Here's the question I used to ask myself in every interaction I had with anyone else, until it became ingrained in my way of thinking. It may be helpful to you, too.
What's the other person's point of view?
is for Unambiguousity
People like clarity from their leaders.
And yes, I do realise that I have just made up a word for the title of this section
They want to know what’s going to happen, when, why and how it’s going to affect them personally.
They don’t want waffle, half-truths, contradictions or “because I say so”.
They don’t to be spoon-fed or patronised, they just want to be treated like rational adults.
When I write it down like that it seems like I’m stating the obvious so I am continually astonished by how many leaders seem to find it incredibly difficult to communicate clearly and without ambiguity.
But then I remember that, so often, we forget that what is obvious to us isn't necessarily obvious to others because they are not inside our heads, following our thought processes.
If you say to someone "bring me some apples" when what you actually want is 3 red eating apples, there's no point getting upset when they bring you 2 lbs of green cooking apples.
How clear are you when giving instructions or asking for what you want?
is for Values-Driven
Values are at the heart of my work here at Ethical Ascendancy.
Through my previous work in the corporate field and with coaching individuals it has become blindingly obvious to me that, once you become aware of your core personal values and their impact on how you lead your life, your ability to grow into your potential becomes magnified.
When you translate that into organisations it’s clear that truly values-driven companies, societies and other communities have greater impact and are far more highly regarded than the ones that just pay lip-service to the idea of values.
When you choose to continue your leadership journey with me, however you do that, you’ll find a continual emphasis on identifying and operating in honour of your values at the heart of the work we do.
How well do you know what your personal values are and what they mean for you?
is for Wondering
It’s all too easy as a leader to get bogged down in all the stuff that comes across your desk.
Some of us get distracted by trivia, some spend all our time fire-fighting as different problems pop up from nowhere and others spend all our time closeted with other leaders protected from the outside world.
I’m going to suggest that you make a commitment to spend a part of every day wondering about things.
Grab a coffee with a junior member of your team that you don’t know very well and say “I wonder what we need to change to make it easier for you to do your job?”.
Take a look at one of your organisation’s policies or processes and ask yourself “I wonder why we do things this way? I wonder how we could make this more effective? I wonder whether we even need this?”
Spend some time with a client or a community member and ask “I wonder what we could do to improve our service to you?”
What will you wonder about today?
is for eXploring
Yes, I know I’ve cheated but the only word I can think of that begins with X is xenophobia and that has no place in a list of leadership skills, despite what's going on in the world today.
Besides which, it's getting increasingly difficult down at this end of the alphabet. You wait till you see what’s coming up for Y and Z...
Anyway I believe that a willingness to explore is vital if you want to lead people into the future.
Sticking with what you know was a great strategy back in the days when nothing much changed and many successful organisations were built on the principle of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.
But that’s not good enough any more - just because it ain’t broke now doesn’t mean it may not be broke tomorrow and if you haven’t already explored the options you’ll be left behind by the day after.
So I encourage you to build some exploration into the way you lead your life.
Break out of your habits and find out what new ideas come to you.
If you always take the same route to work find a new one - what might you see that you usually miss?
If you always network with the same group of people, find an alternative group and discover what new connections you might make.
If you read magazines and journals related to your line of work try reading one or two from completely unrelated fields to see what you can learn from what they do and how they do it.
It has never been easier to reach out and explore the world and all it has to offer than it is today. Taking the time to explore will bring much richness and depth to your life, even if you do it all from your armchair on your iPad.
What will you explore today to give you a fresh outlook?
is for YOLO
I promised no jargon and this one does make me shudder but like I said, these lists seem like a really good idea until you get down to this end of the alphabet!
So I’m just going to say that, so far as we know, You do indeed Only Live Once (and if you believe in reincarnation it seems likely that you won’t be able to remember this life in your next one) and the older you get the more aware you will become that your time here is finite.
The more time you spend now exploring and developing your potential as a person and as a leader, the more opportunities you will have to take a lead in making a positive impact in this world.
The longer you sit and wait the less likely you are to get started - and then you run the risk of waking up one day realising that it's too late, for you or your world.
If you believe that things need to change for the better in any sphere of your life then I urge you to take action now to enable that change to take place.
My work with Ethical Ascendancy is my action - what will yours be?
is for Zeal
The dictionary definition for Zeal is “great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective”.
The things you have great energy or enthusiasm for will most likely relate directly to your core values and when you learn to harness your leadership skills in pursuit of a cause that honours your values you will find yourself growing in confidence, presence and authority.
You may be familiar with the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world” which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
That’s not actually what he said, although it does have a very nice ring to it. Gandhi’s exact words were
"We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
Now is the best time for you start making the changes in yourself that will lead to changes in the world.
Those changes could be small scale - changing your attitude and behaviours to become a better role model for your family, or they could be earth-shaking - you may have a fire within you to change the world in some way.
However you want to make a difference, and whatever your circumstance in life, I believe you have the resources already within you to transform into a Next-Generation Leader.