Demystifying the leadership skills of the future

07 June 2021 By Alicia McKay

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a rapid reorganisation of life and work across the world. Some businesses floundered when their traditional revenue sources dried up, while others flourished, shifting their operating model quickly and nimbly, writes Alicia McKay.

The chasm was immediately obvious. While some retail outlets took to the news to cry poor, others got creative with no-touch car park pick-ups, electric scooter deliveries and online offerings.

One New Zealand clothing company switched immediately from selling luxury clothing in-store to selling patterns online, supporting new and experienced sewers alike with a lockdown activity – and building their brand reputation in the process.

Large-scale social and economic shocks have this effect, acting as a magnifying glass for latent skills and accelerating existing trends. But what is the key difference between those that floundered, and those that flourished?


At its heart: strategic leadership – our ability to adapt and flex with change, set new direction, and mobilise quickly.

The strategic capacity of our leaders is the single most important determinant of personal and organisational success. We’re quick to criticise in hindsight when it fails – why didn’t Kodak see the digital camera coming? How could Blockbuster underestimate Netflix? – yet we continue to invest in skills that hold us back, neglecting the things that make a real difference.

Unfortunately, traditional executive education is failing us. Leadership and management programmes are operationally focused, resulting in leaders who are experts in their field, flat out busy, but battling with the stuff that makes a difference, leaving us poorly equipped to respond when our business model becomes irrelevant overnight.

What we need are strategic skills – the capacity to respond to uncertainty, make decisions in a complex environment, and mobilise people around a new direction with the support and empowerment they need to make it happen.

Strategy is the future of work

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Rather than trying to predict the technical and operational capabilities we need most – coding? automation? digital marketing? we should be thinking about how to tackle our strategic capability, so that we’re OK even when our operation demands change.

These are the safe and enduring skills that will serve us regardless of pandemics, legislative changes or new entries to our market.

The five untaught skills of a strategic leader

Strategic leadership is all about context. Strategic leaders ask questions like: “what’s going on?” “what should we be thinking differently about?” and “what are we not seeing?”.

Strategic leaders have mastered five critical skills.

1. Flexibility – how we cope with change

To lead through complexity, we need to be OK with change. Flexible leaders know that leadership isn’t about getting things done in spite of their environment, but because of it.

They have the awareness, agency and resilience to withstand pandemics, natural disasters and technological disruption, because they stay flexible to the world around them.

2. Decisions – how we make choices

Making good decisions is a learned skill. Decisive leaders know it’s not what they think, but how they think that matters, focusing on providing direction that drives action.

They know that no cost-benefit analysis will save them, without the skills to capture diverse input and build in tolerance for change.

3. Systems – how things fit together

Strategic leaders think in systems, because they know that successful organisations dismantle siloes and work out how things fit together.

Systems leaders don’t settle for what’s in front of them, focusing instead on the messy stuff – context, relationships and dependencies. They stop finger-pointing and problem-solving, to pull levers and dissolve issues before they take hold.

4. Performance – how we get things done

True performance isn’t operational excellence or time management – it’s focus.

Strategic leaders understand that their most valuable resource is their attention, optimising their environments and teams to invest in the factors that make a real difference. They know that once they eliminate distraction and insist on value, quality and accountability, there’s nowhere left to hide.

5. Influence – how we impact others

Influential leaders know that political savvy isn’t slimy; it’s non-negotiable for impact at scale. They know that their integrity, reputation and relationships are what make the difference.

As our environment continues to shift, it will be the leaders who can bring others with them whose ideas will take hold.

Alicia McKay is the author of “You Don’t Need An MBA: Leadership Lessons that Cut Through the Crap”. She is a strategic leadership expert and founder of the naMBA programme.

Demystifying the leadership skills of the future
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