The Evolving Art of Leadership

7th October 2021

Throughout the last twelve months we have utilised our cross-sector networks to interview a range of business leaders and undertaken detailed research to understand the skills and attributes that those spearheading organisations require today.

Our questions centred on three core themes:

  1. DNA for Leadership
  2. Vital Leadership Traits
  3. Organisational Alignment

The attributes required to be successful are adjusting to the increasing complexities of the world in which we operate. Our objective was to understand in more depth what is shifting and how success is measured. It is very clear that bottom line performance is no longer enough, and purpose is becoming vital for success in both profit and not for profit entities.

DNA for Leadership

When our interviewees were asked if there is such a thing as a ‘natural leader’, 95% of respondents said no, but did recognise that there are individuals who have characteristics that can push you forward for leadership positions, such as being naturally competitive or simply more willing to take on responsibility.

Most felt that if an individual aspires to take on a leadership role, there were very few qualities that could not be developed through training, coaching or mentoring, and that there are many different ways to successfully lead. There is clearly appreciation for a calmer, more thoughtful and engaging approach to leadership that brings out the best in others.

Vital Leadership Traits

In our activities we considered the traits that influence and shape career success to understand how great leaders are developing their skills to be successful today. The following top ten traits emerged:

  1. Leaders need to be effective communicators and able to articulate a story that is true to people’s lived experience. This provides a compelling reason for moving forward through challenges. There is no point having great ideas or knowledge, if you cannot then get your message across clearly and positively.  Berwick Partners ran an online poll over the preceding six months and more than 47% of respondents selected communication as still being the most important skill for contemporary leaders.
  2. There was consistency in interviewee responses that leaders with all the skills a role requires but lacking in the emotional intelligence to work effectively in a team are unlikely to achieve long term success. The ability to listen and recognise you do not have all the answers is a powerful leadership tool.
  3. Virginia Bottomley, Chair at Odgers Berndtson recently wrote an article on kindness as a key leadership trait. She said: “Kindness is the face of a more purposeful business agenda. Leaders must become comfortable projecting kindness – the language, the humility, the thoughtfulness. Kindness is no longer a word in a HR folder labelled ‘culture’. It is a trait which will define leaders of the future”.
  4. Leaders need to be able to paint the vision, engage and then positively relay to people where the business is heading, and more critically, why. The latter point has, according to our interviewees, become increasingly vital. No longer is making ‘profit’ viewed as an acceptable purpose in isolation. Work life balance, organisational prestige, sustainability and social worth are as much critical factors to retention as remuneration.
  5. Political instability, economic uncertainty, Brexit, COVID-19, climate change, the only future certainty is uncertainty and leaders need to be comfortable that they will have to deal with the ‘next normal’. Good decision making and judgement comes with experience, but increasingly quick decisions have to be made with limited data. Uncertainty leads to ambiguity – the best leaders are agile and able to make informed decisions without the full picture.
  6. The way you transform organisations is by cultivating and engaging people.  How do you get your diverse group of contributors to come together, maximise their talent and produce an outcome greater than the sum of its parts? Leaders who are empowering ensure people bring the best of themselves to work.
  7. One of the few things you can guarantee in life is that you will have defeats along the. All leaders we spoke to had experienced failure at some point. Becoming resilient and learning from these experiences had shaped their career more than when the outcome was immediately successful.
  8. People want to trust in their leaders and, when they do, the leader becomes part of the reason others want to succeed. In challenging times people do not need mission statements, they want a leader who they can trust and who is authentic.
  9. Success is unlikely to stem from a completely risk-averse strategy and great leaders need to have the confidence to take some risks and be adaptable, whilst remaining accountable.
  10. You must be curious in seeking information, and then have the talent to act on it quickly.

Organisational alignment

We assessed how aligned Chairs, NEDs and CEOs are in identifying what is integral to their own leadership teams, and how this plays into succession planning. How does each organisation define what good leadership looks like and how do you bring diversity of thought into your team to best reflect societal change?

There is a real challenge aligning experienced leadership with the opportunities created by digitalisation and rapid technology change. As a result, a recent Imperial College Study suggested nearly a fifth of CEO’s were unsuited to the organisation they lead.

Boards are struggling to adapt fast enough. Every generation brings change, but the increasing pace of it affects the ability of different generations to understand each-others mindset. As a result, we see the strategic horizon getting shorter.

Leadership evolution is critical to ensuring those guiding organisations remain fit for purpose. Our business is focused on finding those leaders – for further information on Berwick Partners go to