This post on leadership challenges was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for 2019.
What’s different about leadership today? What are some of the challenges today’s leaders face?
I address, advise, and teach leadership skills to hundreds of leaders each year. In public forums and private conversations, they share their experiences as leaders—their questions, hopes, fears, and expectations.
In addition, I connect with many of those they lead, and from them, I capture candid assessments—the good and the bad.
There are some questions I get over and over, and many of them relate to specific new challenges that today’s leaders face.
I’ve compiled 12 of today’s top leadership challenges, along with suggestions to implement to tackle them head on:
1. Increased impact. Gone are the days of leaders being responsible only to employees, customers and shareholders. The impacts of their products, services and ways of doing business now also spread to the greater community.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to environmental and health impacts. In today’s world, it is expected that corporations set examples. Apple, for example, has committed to sourcing 100 percent sustainable paper packaging, to protect the world’s remaining virgin forests.
From waste and pollution to climate change and deforestation, businesses are under the microscope, and one wrong move could have the larger community, activist investors, and special interest groups banging at your door.
Leaders must consider the wider impact of their decisions and the actions the business takes, not just those directly impacted.
2. Over-reliance on curating, not creating. Being a leader means creating success, not just copying it from others. An executive once shared with me how he was often sent links and videos of ideas from his boss. The problem was, they were never original ideas, they were always copied from someone else. Now, that’s not to say that curating isn’t a bad idea, but it can’t be your only business strategy.
Being a leader in today’s world means creating your own ideas and applications—something many seem reluctant to do.
The people we lead want innovators, not just imitators. One of the qualities of a good leader is that he or she doesn’t just copy and collect, but also thinks and creates.
3. Too much screen time and not enough face time. British novelist John Le Carre once said: “An office is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” I’d amend that to say a smartphone or computer screen is not much better.
Spending your days with your face buried in a screen does not set a good example to those you lead. The most effective interactions come from in-person meetings and conversations.
As a leader today, you must commit to face-to-face (or at a very minimum, ear-to-ear) interactions with those you lead, no matter how hard it may be to pull yourself away from urgent matters.
4. Using outdated time management thinking. I firmly believe—and research backs me up—that multitasking is a myth and it can actually take up to 40 percent longer to complete two tasks when switching back and forth between both.
Leaders of today work on the principle of life design as opposed to life balance. You will devote the right number of hours and energy to the most important things, even if it does not create balance in your life. Instead, you will be laser-focused on the single priority that is the most pressing.
5. Treating their team as followers. Employees both want, and deserve to be thought of as contributors, colleagues and team members. When you change the way you think about your team of contributors, the relationship you have with them will also change.
You lead people, not followers. Employees who are respected are more likely to respect in return, and a symbiotic relationship is formed.
6. Fear of the great unknown. Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese–American essayist, scholar, statistician, and former trader and risk analyst, wrote the definitive book about overconfidence in our ability to predict, anticipate and plan. In it, he described the “black swan”, an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically with extreme consequences. Black swans can and do happen, both in life and in business. So why do so many leaders act as if black swans never happen, or can be avoided?
Today’s leader must accept the real limitations of knowledge about the future and act accordingly. Exceptional leadership is as much about taking action in the face of the unknown as it is gathering information to eliminate the unknown and mitigate consequences.
7. An increasing lack of confidence. Past success is no guarantee of future success, and most leaders know this. The most successful leader can struggle with a crisis of confidence in their ability to keep winning.
Leaders sometimes fail. We act like that is a dirty secret. The truth is, you can only work hard and do your best with the information available.
If you continue to succeed more than you fail as a leader, it is proof you are in the right job. If the opposite is true, you might not be the right leader for the position.
8. A false dichotomy of ethics. Trying to separate personal ethics from professional ethics is not a good idea. There are just ethics. Trying to apply two different standards is wrong—don’t do something at work that you wouldn’t do in your personal life.
Leaders work hard to create what I conversely call the “normalization of integrity” and have clearly defined values and ethics both in and out of the workplace. When observed by others, these ethics become ingrained in the organization, and become the standard that everybody follows.
9. Overemphasis on generational differences. Understanding generational differences can provide effective tools for better communication and collaboration. At the same time, regardless of age, people have so much in common. We like to be on a winning team, we want to have meaning at work, we want job satisfaction.
Leaders must seek to understand generational differences while also unifying their teams with shared interests and beliefs.
10. Employee engagement. One of the biggest myths I encounter is the belief that to be a successful leader, one needs only the best people on their team. John Wooden, American basketball player and head coach at the University of California, wisely noted that he didn’t want the best players on his team. He wanted the players that made his team the best.
Recognizing the difference between the best people and the people who make up the best team is one of the qualities of a good leader. Talent can only go so far. Engagement and collaboration are the ingredients needed for an excellent team.
11. Lack of preparation. My research shows that only one in four leaders feels prepared when they assume formal leadership roles. Before moving into management positions, aspiring leaders must learn to lead through real-world projects and assignments.
Without developing leadership skills through prior experience, there will be a lack of confidence for effective leadership.
12. Business model innovation. While speaking to a global technology company in the Middle East, I was fascinated to hear that their C-level executive customers were most worried about innovation in business models—more so than the impact of technology.
A business model is the way a company makes money, and can be used defensively against competitors to reinvigorate revenues in declining markets or as a way of exploring new opportunities.
One of the qualities of a good leader is that he or she regularly revisits and revises their business model. Business model innovation is increasing at lightning speed and may well be the single greatest high-level business challenge leaders face.
Which of these 12 leadership challenges are you facing? What are your strategies and tactics to meet them head on?
Leadership is fraught with challenge and change, but without challenge comes boredom. Ultimately, dealing with challenges is the essence of leadership.
If you enjoyed this post on leadership challenges, here are three more you might also find interesting:
- The leaders most important job
- The six traits of extraordinary achievers
- Five things your employees hate but they won’t tell you2