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Develop the skills needed to be an agile, modern leader

IbyIMD+ Published 18 January 2022 in Leadership • 3 min read

Today’s world calls for agile and collaborative leadership and the good news is that the essential toolkit needed is available to all. 


The ability to acquire new skills and knowledge is ever more important in the world of fast-changing technology and coronavirus turmoil. And while performance psychologists once deemed talent as innate, most now agree that it is fundamentally learnt.   

Over the four decades I have spent teaching executives, leadership has changed. The more command and control style of leadership, as exemplified by CEOs such as General Electric’s Jack Welch or Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, is giving way to a more collaborative and empathetic approach, amplified by the impact of the pandemic and shift to remote working. 

Leadership is becoming more transformational (leading through influence, inspiration and teamwork) instead of transactional (focused on supervision, organization and performance).  

Leaders must build trust with all stakeholders including employees, suppliers and customers. Investors are pushing companies to become better corporate citizens as the pandemic shines a spotlight on societal ills like climate change, diversity, and a mental health crisis. In response, leadership is becoming more focused on emotions.  

Succeeding as an executive today requires evolving your own personal leadership style and becoming “agile”: promoting and leading others through change. The trait theory of leadership suggests that certain personality characteristics (high IQ, extrovert) are innate, and make someone a good leader. However, more recent, research has found that leadership behavior can be developed – the person effect.  

Executives need to practice 'flow', the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing seems to matter

There is, of course, a painful truth to acquiring a new skill. Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 bestseller Outliers, popularized the “10,000-hour rule of practice” based on research by Anders Ericsson. But simply doing something repeatedly does not guarantee skills development. Ericsson, an influential figure in performance psychology, called this “naïve practice”, which refers to the limits of continuous graft. Instead, people need to do “deliberate practice”, when you focus on acquiring the skill instead of just doing the legwork, to see improvement.  

Talent development also requires our full attention, which is a big problem in today’s “always on” culture. Executives need to practice “flow”, the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The concept was developed by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who noted that managers also need to help their workforce practice flow.  

The key to this is to banish what the organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls “languishing”, a sense of stagnation and emptiness that many people are struggling with given the emotional turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. One antidote is purpose – something that many companies are trying to cultivate in their organization.  

Practice must be “purposeful”; it must have a specific goal, the learner should be pushed out of their comfort zone, and their progress should be monitored to ensure commitment. Some of the greatest CEOs have used coaches to receive feedback and inspiration.  

Feedback may be raw and painful, but it leads to continuous improvement over time. And with the nature of leadership itself shifting, in an era of fast and frequent change, feedback, along with purpose, flow and intent, will all be required for executives to keep pace.

Skills you need to be a good leader 

Based on my research with more than 300 executives, here are the essential requirements for good leadership today:

1 Honesty: candor is the antidote to anxiety. 

2 Consistency, emotional availability and reliability. 

3 Emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion. 

4 Managing hybrid teams, with some people working remotely and others in the office. 

5 Knowing what we can control and what we cannot control. 

6 Active listening and dialogue through inquiry rather than telling people what they should think and how they should feel. 

7 Creating psychological safety to build trust.  

8 Exploring and understanding the meaning and purpose of work and life. 

 9 Getting employees involved in organizational decisions whenever possible.  



George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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