This week, I’ll be attending a reunion of my business school class, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how different business and leadership were in the 1990s compared with today. Our MBA curriculum focused on general management: finance, accounting, production/operations and other traditional skills of commerce. Most of my classmates scoffed at the one organizational behavior class we had, and topics like DEI, technology, entrepreneurship or cyber-security were hardly part of the syllabus. 


The world of work has changed dramatically in just a few decades and the pace of change is accelerating every day. Leadership skills of the past are not enough. Today’s workplace requires that leaders must possess all the traditional skills, but also navigate hybrid work, matrixed structures and global uncertainty, all while being inclusive and authentic. That did not ever come up in my MBA program. In short, being a leader today requires so many skills, it almost seems like you have to be a superhero.


Since none of us are or should aspire to be superheroes, how do we narrow down the most important leadership skills for the future?

The World Economic Forum released a list of the Top 10 Job Skills For 2025, which says future leaders will need the following: analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility; creativity, originality and initiative; social influence; reasoning, problem-solving and idea generation; technology design and programming; and emotional intelligence. A recent Forbes article maintains that the single most important leadership skill is self-leadership — the ability to demonstrate self-awareness, emotional intelligence, inclusion, mindfulness, empathy, social intelligence, and learning agility during challenging and complex situations. 


Successful leaders must now possess a combination of hard and soft leadership skills. The main difference between the leader of yesterday and the leader of tomorrow seems to be the ability to analyze, learn and shift – using an emotionally intelligent approach.


In short, leaders of the future do not need to be a superheroes; in fact, we need to be more human.


I turned to top local leaders for their thoughts on what skills will be particularly important for leaders to build effective cultures in the future.


Emily Abbas, senior vice president, chief consumer banking and marketing officer, Bankers Trust: Involve intuition before taking action. There is a growing need for leaders to know when to “strengthen the swimmer” and when to instead “calm the water.” On any given day team members may be up for challenges that strengthen their skills and provide breakthroughs, while at other times they may be overwhelmed and need to be given more grace. If leaders want to support healthy and productive employees, involving intuition when making decisions will be key.


Juan Pablo Sanchez, director of inclusive business strategies, Greater Des Moines Partnership: Leaders in a constant rethinking mode will be able to adapt in a more effective way to this ever-changing work environment. This ability to move quickly must go beyond the organization’s core business and also try to understand the purpose and contribution in the community. Internally, an unrestricted commitment to diversity and inclusion at all levels is a must-have to cultivate a sense of belonging from employees to enable organizations to overcome future challenges. In a broader respect, a mindset for innovation and sustainability will remain critical for leaders to prevail through uncertain times.  

Tony Dickinson, president, NCMIC Finance Corp.: It’s clear from the last couple of years that to build effective culture, leaders will need to wear several hats, all at once. They’ll need to be cheerleaders and champions, but also practice empathy and have compassion for people. They’ll need to be strategic thinkers, but agile with long-term plans. They’ll need to be committed to learning new skills and open to innovative ideas. Above all, they’ll need to be great communicators because there’s no telling what the workplace could look like in the coming years. As we’ve seen, our workforce could be located down the hall or a world away.


Dr. Hayley L. Harvey, section chief and director of dental education, Broadlawns Medical Center: I have long held the belief that “money comes and goes; time only goes.” The closer my mortality comes into focus, the firmer my hold to this belief becomes. As a member of the so-called “lost generation” (Gen X) with Gen Z children, I am acutely aware of how emphatically they embrace inclusion, individualism and transparency in the workspace, while simultaneously harboring feelings of a bleak future. Leaders will need to manage the dynamics of these characteristics of the future workforce to build and sustain an effective work culture in the future.


Jeff Rommel, senior vice president, personal lines sales and distribution, Nationwide: In our ever-changing environment, we’re going to encounter setbacks, and it’s our resiliency that will help us stay the course and be ready to meet challenges head-on in the future. Leaders must cast a positive shadow across their team and continually remind them of their purpose. Expressing real-time and sincere gratitude is another critical skill that deepens our connections to each other and the work we do every day. Our people are our top assets, and they need to feel valued.


Critical skills for the leader of the future:


Active listening and communication: “We want to communicate with clarity, and that means listening to understand instead of listening to reply,” says Rommel, who says if we take the time to understand how our teams are feeling, we can more effectively communicate with them.


Self-confidence: “Exhibit the strong self-confidence of a pack leader,” says Abbas, noting that while this may seem at odds with showing vulnerability, teams look to someone who can protect and lead through uncertainty, as well as being able to empathize and relate.


Prioritization of the human aspect: In a world informed by the life-and-death lessons of the pandemic, leaders will need to hone the ability to prioritize and “always put the human aspect first,” says Sanchez. Dickinson concurs, noting that leaders need to “lead by example and demonstrate that it’s not a sign of weakness to take care of the mind in the same way we take care of our body.”


Awareness and empathy: “Leaders need to be aware of their surroundings, recognizing that what’s happening outside of the business can impact our associates,” says Rommel. “We must acknowledge the disruption from the outside and offer support on the inside.”  

Inclusion: “It’s urgent that leaders understand the role of DEI in the workplace, that they meet others where they are in their journey while also sharing their own,” says Dickinson. Harvey echoes this, saying: “Leaders in the future should be intentional in ensuring that those employed as part of the workplace team are not only a “good fit” for the team, but most importantly that each team member believes themselves to be an invaluable member of the team.”