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This blog is a recent article that appeared in Forbes written by Maureen Metcalf and Dr. Christopher Washington.  It is a companion to their conversation on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Leadership Trends for 2021 and Beyond that aired on Tuesday, December 29th, 2020.


Where there is disruption, there is an opportunity. Where there is a collapse, there is an evolutionary opportunity. As an interconnected global system, we are facing opportunities to address risks and create a more sustainable, just and fair future for more people. To create this future, leaders need to understand the current leadership trends as well as the overarching megatrends. I’ll talk about the trends I see at the end of 2020 based on my clients’ work, as well as 50 interviews I conducted with executives, authors, thought leaders and academics.

Trend 1: Economic volatility impacting society and the workplace, increasing polarization on global sustainability, and social justice issues impacting international relations and local communities.

  • What are the likely impacts you and your organization will face in the next three-, six-, nine- and 12-month cycles?
  • How is economic volatility impacting you?
  • How is the possible realignment of the social contract to create equal opportunity across all races and gender orientations impacting your organization?
  • How is climate volatility impacting your organization?
  • How do you shore up your foundation during turmoil?
  • What opportunities are available to you now that were not before?

Trend 2: Continued erosion of trust in societal institutions and a weakening of the principles that sustain those institutions.

For organizations to function effectively, employees and participants need to trust leadership and one another. They are more effective if they believe in the mission and the organization’s commitment to accomplishing it.

  • When traditional institutions falter, what replaces them?
  • Who has power? Do you see a move from hierarchy to distributed power?
  • What is your North Star during turmoil?
  • How do your values impact your decisions and actions?
  • How does social and restorative justice impact your thinking about your work?
  • Who do you stop trusting?

Trend 3: More complex global system optimization, including resilience, geopolitical impacts, social justice, etc.

In the past, we optimized for profit and efficiency; now, the equation is more complicated. It has expanded to include a greater emphasis on geopolitics, workforce health and social justice, among others. New networks leveraging IT to share information and spread new ideas challenge hierarchies within and across systems and add complexity to supply chains that may amplify otherness among stakeholders and even within organizations.

  • How does your organization balance competing stakeholder objectives?
  • How are your systems and processes evolving to reflect systemic changes?
  • How are your cultural values evolving to meet changing social norms?
  • Is your organization designed to evolve and thrive as the ecosystem continues to evolve?

Trend 4: Increased expectations to deliver results faster.

Many organizations were effective at implementing significant change quickly during Covid-19. Now, many organizational leaders take this one-time ability to change as a demonstration that rapid change is possible and needs to become the norm.

  • Now that you have proven you can deliver quickly (in response to Covid-19), what are the expectations for ongoing speed?
  • What changes do you need to implement?
  • How do you ensure you and your people can remain balanced when the sprint becomes a marathon?
  • How does the gig economy provide you with increased capacity?

Trend 5: Major shift in knowledge and skill requirements for both leaders and employees.

Disruption and the constant push for innovation enable technology to replace many traditionally lower-skilled jobs with robots and robotic process automation, yet many jobs require special skills. With the rate of change, skilled workers need to update their skills or reskill regularly.

  • What new topics do you need to understand?
  • What do you need to be able to do that you can’t yet do?
  • What routine do you need to create to refresh your knowledge and skills continually?

Trend 6: Need to increase personal agility in all facets of life.

We, as leaders and people, need to continue to adapt to a broad range of changes in our personal and professional lives.

  • What are the biggest challenges you face?
  • What challenges do your team members face?
  • How do you work together to address the challenges?
  • Who is your tribe, and how do you stay connected?

Trend 7: More freedom to work where and how we want — and less privacy.

Mass migration, remote work and learning impact who can work, where work is done and the nature of work itself.

  • Where in your life do you have more flexibility, such as the option to work from alternate locations?
  • How will this flexibility impact your access to new opportunities for you and possibly your family?
  • How does this flexibility impact your social bonds at work and home?
  • How is technology impacting your ease of life (e.g., internet of things and self-driving cars)?
  • Where are you trading flexibility for privacy?

We are living at a fantastic time in history. We have the opportunity to plot a future that is unlike our past. We can leave a legacy where future generations look back and see this time as a renaissance — when the foundation was laid to create a future better than many people living could imagine. A future where all of the world’s population has enough food and water. A future where human exploitation is an exception rather than a common occurrence. A future where people earn a living wage to provide for their families without relying on government assistance. A future where organizations balance robust financial rewards with creating healthier communities and societies. We have the power to make progress to cocreate the future we envision — whatever that future is. I invite you to imagine the impact you want to see and work to create it.


To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.


About the Authors

Maureen Metcalf, CEO, the Innovative Leadership Institute, is dedicated to elevating the quality of leaders across the globe.

Forbes Councils member Christopher Washington, Executive Vice President and Provost, Franklin University, contributed to this article.