In the spotlight: “Who is business?” Focus on the next generation.

The leader of the future – from boss to sparring partner


Change requires leadership, and leadership requires the ability to change. The successful leaders of tomorrow will be open-minded and able to deal with diverse employees and working models, establish an agile, digital team culture, coach their people, and lead by example. Modern leaders are also able to see things from different points of view, build trust, nurture emotions, steward their energies, and are not afraid to show their vulnerability. In other words, they are multitalented but know their limits.



Charles Donkor

Charles Donkor

Partner, People and Organisation, PwC Switzerland

A few weeks ago, an SME employing around 900 people successfully completed an extensive transformation process. The head of human resources presented the findings of the latest employee survey. The head of sales got surprisingly bad marks, with staff anything but satisfied with their leader. Comments such as ‘he passes the pressure straight on to us’, ‘he doesn’t let us get on with things’, and ‘mistakes are severely punished’ felt like slaps in the face. Following the presentation, the head of sales talked to his superiors about the situation. He admitted he was surprised by the critical feedback, but said he wanted to use it as an opportunity to improve. His boss advised him to raise the issue with the team and find out exactly what they were lacking.

Many tasks, one future

This example is not unique by any means. It’s the manifestation of a transformation in the world of work that is turning everything upside-down. This change is forcing managers to reflect deeply on themselves and fine-tune the way they lead. Let’s take a look at the main changes and their impact on the ‘new’ C-suite.

Diversity on multiple levels

Organisations and teams are getting more and more diverse and complex, not just in terms of gender balance, but also in terms of the variety of generations, ethnicities and nationalities, and people with handicaps or different sexual orientations. Added to this rich variety is a whole range of new and increasingly widespread working arrangements, from part-time, home office and gig work to annual working hours, to name but a few. Dealing with such diversity means that people also have to think about and manage a broad range of issues, in terms of both the content of their work and their time.

Inescapable virtualisation

Work is shifting from the real to the virtual world, not least thanks to the use of digital tools. This process of virtualisation has immediate implications for managers who now have to appraise their staff on the basis of their results rather than mere time in the office. It’s also often hard for bosses to motivate their people or gauge their feelings if they do not see them in person. Plus it’s difficult to build team spirit among people who only collaborate virtually. Mutual trust, engagement and a can-do mentality all require a certain amount of interpersonal bonding. (See Disclose 1/2018 edition, High-Performing Teams).

Agile digital culture

Digitalisation is forcing organisations to transform and become more agile and flexible. These days doing business means operating more quickly and taking more risks: prototyping, testing, launching and learning from your mistakes. In this environment leaders have to work collaboratively and get information and know-how wherever they can find it, whether that is inside or outside the organisation. This in turn requires a readiness to embrace and harness technological options to reduce the workload (robots) or boost performance (artificial intelligence).

Empathetic coaches

Managing has long since ceased to be a one-way street, but in the future it will also change direction. Top-down is out. Modern leaders work with their people, who expect their boss to coach them, map out the broad course, give them room for manoeuvre, and support them wherever needed. Bosses have evolved into sparring partners whose job it is to make sure their people develop and put in their best performance.

Drivers of culture development

In today’s world of work, corporate culture has become a differentiating factor that can enable an organisation to find the right people and retain them long term (see HR Today, Zukunft der Arbeit). Talented, engaged people want to know what the company they choose stands for. This means that the boss has to serve as a shining example embodying a well though-out, uniform and motivating corporate culture.

Leading edge

In the future, successful managers will be transformational leaders who go with the change and give work a higher meaning. They will be able to transform good work into top performance, good staff into seasoned experts, and good companies into desirable employers.

Figure 1: The transformational leader is taking on the role of coaches to help make work meaningful
Create and give meaning Setting & Driving Direction Building Commitment Ensuring Execution Deliver extraordinary experiences Transformational Leader Self-management
View figure

Tomorrow’s style of leadership will render many aspects of the traditional management role obsolete. Transformational leaders will have to meet multiple requirements. They will have to be able to

…take different points of view: modern leaders are inquisitive, skilled at asking the right questions, and are aware of what their people want to know from them. They take different points of view on board as the basis for forming their own opinion. This leads to a clear vision and strategic and organisational coherence.

…build trust: tomorrow’s bosses will create an environment in which individuals feel respected and have the courage to take risks and grow as a result. This ability gives organisations greater vitality and capacity for risk.

…empower top performance: transformational leaders are able to steward their own energy and resources, and those of their team. They lead by example and encourage members of the team to be confident and take the initiative. This attitude creates staying power and an environment where people think for themselves.

…engage emotionally: open-minded leaders are good listeners who can unleash a passion for co-creation. They are aware of their people’s feelings and concerns, and present a convincing vision of the future encompassing both the what and the how. This approach empowers people and boosts their engagement.

… show weakness: members of the modern C-suite set prejudices aside and use their full room for manoeuvre to allow the entire team to grow beyond any limitations. They are not afraid to admit their own weaknesses and vulnerability. This sets the stage for innovation, speed and diversity of thought.

Challenging, but manageable

Leading for the future is challenging, but manageable. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to have a clear understanding of their contribution to value creation as well as their own weaknesses. This means they will have to confront themselves honestly and say a firm ‘Yes’ to change. While there is no patent recipe for this, there are a few useful tips.

Cultivate the ability to change points of view

To take different viewpoints on board, you have to be able to accept and deal with a multiplicity of opinions. In both their business and private lives, people experience situations that automatically confront them with different views and attitudes. Whether it’s going to the theatre, a controversial exhibition or a critical lecture, or reading a book, blog or tweet, anything that does not necessarily correspond to your own opinion encourages you to reflect on your own attitudes and engage with people who think differently. A rich and varied social environment forces you to get off the beaten track and take a broader perspective.

Open up emotionally

Trust creates trust. For this to happen it requires to be emotionally close to each other, which in turn requires a willingness to listen to other people, encourage them to take the initiative and allow them to make mistakes. Mistakes are the best opportunities to learn and take all the necessary steps to make sure more mistakes do not happen. People who know that failure is allowed will be more prepared to take risks and thus put in a better performance.

Steward your energy

Batteries work best when they are fully charged. As a leader you have to be aware of where your energy comes from and what drains it. You should regularly recharge your batteries, for example by doing sport, going to a concert or the theatre, or spending time with friends, family or on your own. Consciously managing your energy is a good way of preventing health-damaging stress or dangerous burnout.

Speak to people’s emotions

This aspect of leadership is particularly challenging for men. The fact is, though, that modern leaders communicate on an emotional as well as a rational level. This means engaging with the feelings of your staff, peers and superiors, and giving the ‘soft’ aspects of business just as much room as the ‘hard’ factors.

Admit vulnerability

Tomorrow’s bosses are not gods in pinstripe suits. They are normal people with their own strengths and weaknesses. The difference is that these weaknesses will be known and accepted. Leaders will allow other people to have good ideas, do things better and actually get things done. They realise that a good team adds up to much more than the ability of each individual (see Disclose 1/2018 edition, "High-Performing Teams").

We’re at your service!

Charles Donkor

Charles Donkor

Partner, People and Organisation, PwC Switzerland

+41 58 792 45 54

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