Why Traditional Models of Leadership Fall Short in the 2020s

Traditional leadership styles are showing signs of strain. We were once happy to accept Logan Roy-type1 super-macho CEOs, but now talent is scarce, and the free VC money has vanished. As business and the broader social context shift, we want to avoid following leaders resembling General Patton. Instead, we seek leaders who can safely guide us through challenging times by earning our trust rather than exploiting our fear.

The reality is that with capable, human-centered leadership, your best people will stay, and staff churn is becoming a trillion-dollar problem.2 Newsweek has just reported that 25% and 22% of Gen Z applicants will stay away from companies and industries with negative press.3Meanwhile, job site Monster has found that 4 ​​for new graduates entering the workforce, 37% would quit a job if they don’t like working for their manager/leadership—but 51% say having great managers and leaders is the most critical aspect of a job.

Working with Harvard Business Review’s Analytic Services team last year, we asked 665 leaders from across industries and around the world about how they see leadership development evolving to meet the demands of today’s workplaces. The resulting study — Leveraging Coaching and Mentoring to Create More Effective Leaders 5— found that leadership development is changing in several ways.

We found that a new workforce and strategic imperatives have changed the leadership style that organizations need, meaning they’re also redefining what they consider essential leadership skills. Across the board, organizations also told us they were moving from more traditional “authoritative” leadership styles towards a more trust-based dynamic. For example, we saw a focus on developing relational skills (previously dubbed “soft” skills), which included abilities like motivating a team and collaborating effectively.

Our deep dive into current leadership thinking also found that organizations now consciously select leaders with greater empathy, trust-building, and emotional intelligence capacity. They’re looking for leaders who can successfully navigate DEI and recruitment/retention challenges and work with the aspirations of workers who, in this decade, are motivated as much (if not more) by values as by a paycheck.

Changing expectations from workers is a critical issue that managers and executives must consider in addition to coping with increased market pressures and organizational complexity.

In the report, George Kohlrieser, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, tells us, “Since the turn of the Millennium, there has been a growing recognition that leading with authority and fear no longer works. [Instead] great leaders become a secure base for others by creating trust and providing energy and support to encourage their employees to take risks and seize new opportunities.”

The question then becomes: how can leaders develop those relational skills–the capacity to ensure the work gets done while also helping every employee feel empowered to do their best work? Though leadership skills training is still the most used leadership development tool (rated so by 80% of respondents), it is also seen as much less effective than personalized and relationship-based options, with 35% rating skills training as “extremely” or “very effective” versus a much higher proportion, 60%, for coaching.

One important first step for organizations is to cultivate a leadership model that encourages the development of the core relational skills that today’s workplaces require. And that’s what leading U.S.-headquartered data analytics company FICO 6 set out to do. Its ongoing people development work involves crafting experiential journeys to nurture a new breed of leaders better suited for the demands of today’s world.

According to FICO, they firmly believe that leaders play a crucial role in engaging employees and unlocking their full potential. However, they are actively seeking to move away from the model epitomized by Succession character Logan Roy, aiming for more individuals who can inspire excellence regardless of whether they hold formal people management responsibilities.

The organization also says it needs such leaders to inspire employees to bring their best selves to work and generate energy and emotional commitment to the success of the overall business. Crucially, they adopt a holistic approach that centers on the power of relationships and continuous learning, encouraging knowledge exchange and growth among all workforce levels.

Coaching and mentoring provide different experiences and insights to leaders.

To actualize and implement these transformative ideas, FICO took a proactive approach by leveraging coaching and mentoring through an online people development platform. This platform enabled them to cater to various use cases, from fundamental support for people managers to offering personalized mentoring experiences for high-potential leaders. Additionally, FICO designed a specialized and immersive coaching program specifically tailored for exceptional candidates who stand to benefit most from such targeted interventions and support.

Why the preference for coaching and mentoring over more conventional leadership development techniques? As with many companies we’re working with, adopting coaching and mentoring stems from evidence that these methods are more effective at driving sustainable behavior change than point-in-time training. Coaching, for instance, accelerates behavior change by holding coaches accountable for the changes they want to make, creating a psychologically safe space to explore strengths and opportunities, and helping them apply learnings to their everyday work.

As a result of moving away from the old-school command and control leadership approach, FICO says that it’s seeing increased engagement of team members and successful development and retention of high-potential individuals and people leaders. But how do CHROs at companies using coaching and mentoring work out who would most benefit from such an approach? Rather than viewing leadership development programs as a remediation measure for underperforming individuals, FICO positions them as an investment in an individual’s growth and potential. The selection criteria are based on quantitative and qualitative factors that identify high-potential candidates already exhibiting strong leadership qualities and a genuine desire to participate in the program.

A similar approach is emerging in social news aggregation, content rating, and discussion website Reddit.7 Reddit believes that creating a home for everyone worldwide begins by ensuring all its employees feel a sense of belonging within the company. To achieve this, Reddit strongly emphasizes maintaining and strengthening its unique company culture to ensure that employees feel empowered and excited to come to work every day.

Reddit’s effort includes continuously adapting and evolving workforce philosophies, programs, and processes to improve Reddit’s work experience. As the company grows and becomes, it recognizes the importance of nurturing emerging leaders who drive company growth and embody Reddit’s core values. Its innovative six-month Key Talent Program aims to empower participants with essential relational skills focused on influential people management. The program has resulted in a 38% increase in employee retention rates.

Authentic leadership is complex and nuanced.

The results at Reddit and FICO are encouraging, where coaching and mentoring are integral parts of leadership development. For instance, 71% of those who participated in the Reddit program received exceptional scores on their performance reviews. The retention within this group also surpasses that of non-participants by 38%.

However, despite these successes, both organizations acknowledge that leadership development is an ongoing and evolving process. No single approach can work for everyone all the time.

Why? Because humans make mistakes, and they’re working in dynamic, constantly shifting environments. Today’s workplace is complex, multi-generational, and socially highly variegated. 2020’s leadership is a work in progress, and we need to recognize there can be an element of “two steps forward, one step back” revision of beliefs, attitudes, and responses to HR problems as part of the journey.

Embracing a learning mindset and being open to learning from complex experiences is critical to personal and professional growth. So don’t be intimidated by the articles and posts from individuals you admire who always seem to have the correct answers, as the reality of being a human is far more intricate and nuanced than what is often displayed online. The shift away from the super macho CEO archetype is a positive development. The traditional command-and-control leadership style gives way to more inclusive and empowering leadership approaches fueled by the power of coaching and mentoring leaders. As organizations evolve, new and better ways of organizing work and inspiring people are emerging to take their place.


1 https://bit.ly/44zU4Cl

2 https://bit.ly/3QLs2Af

3 https://bit.ly/45uqfns

4 https://bit.ly/45aiZ0d

5 https://bit.ly/47J1KoA

6 https://bit.ly/3skhkH1

7 https://bit.ly/3KQc58q

Cameron Yarbrough, Torch Leadership Development
Co-Founder & CEO at 

Cameron Yarbrough is Co-Founder & CEO at people development platform Torch.Prior to Torch, Cameron worked at Stanford GSB as an interpersonal dynamics facilitator and also built a successful executive coaching practice working with high-profile Silicon Valley executives.

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