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The modern leadership style: Being, not doing

What qualities do modern leaders need? Here is a list from an organizational development expert.

8 min read


The modern leadership style: Being, not doing

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The old patterns for organizations and work need refreshment. Modern leaders will have to lead differently. 

I worked with over 25 CEOs as a colleague and as formal support for their leadership development in my role of an organizational development executive. I experienced many strengths and styles of leadership as well as blind spots of power as these CEOs led large companies. 

These leaders evolved from the previous generation with new leadership approaches, but the modern leader must skip a generation of leadership learning and leap into modern leading, learning while they are in mid-air.

The successful modern leaders will be:


They will need the ability to create a very sharp edge to the business strategy, know the market and cut away all that does not contribute to serving a knowledgeable consumer. This will also mean clarity about the values the company uses to guide actions in every arena. They will also need to be clear about how decisions are made and willing to share the process.


The modern leader will need to be the ultimate connector, aligning associates from vision through execution to profit on a path that connects the results of each element so that there is embedded coherence. They will connect the right people to the right task and connect the company to the community and the market. Most importantly the modern leader will know how to connect the customer with the experience they want.


The modern leader needs to know how to create and encourage collaboration. There will be more and more groups, projects and partnerships that will form and unform. There will be a blurred line between in and out of the company. Knowing how to keep collaboration productive and focused while maintaining the value of working together is a modern leadership skill.


Modern leaders need to prove their worth. There have been too many top leaders whose people didn’t think they knew how to do the job. The new leaders will have to demonstrate their ability, fitness and qualities to do the job. Followers need to know their effort is given to someone who is capable.


The demand for clarity will allow for a form of control that is less burdensome and awkward for associates. Sharp clarity on goals and the freedom to find ways to achieving them will be needed. Learning how to maintain focus (not control) of the work of the company without punitive power will be essential. Allowing breadth and innovation will be the price for engagement.


With demand high, the environment changing and work being more collaborative through teams connecting and disconnecting, there will be more overt conflict. Get people used to the idea. High-agility, temporary teams and high cross-functional demand will create conflict and competing demands. Modern leaders will need to show that conflict will be part of speed and agility, and they’ll need to know when to intervene and ease strategic conflict (back to “clarity”) when necessary.

Casual and companionable

Working in an informal, comfortable environment makes the high-demand world we work in more tolerable. Casual and comfortable does not mean sloppy or crude or out of control. It means keeping foolish rules out of the way of getting work done and allowing for some fun and restoration of energy. A softer environment allows for concentration on work that is tough and demanding.

Culturally adept

Modern leaders will have to understand, work with and encourage every kind of difference with no bias. That means everything from race to creative type, different cultures to religion, hairstyle to personal quirks of team members.

Modern leaders need every bit of talent they can get their hands on. It is the talent that needs to be seen and used, not differences. The more differences, the greater the possible evolution to new.


Modern leaders are redesigning work and what constitutes a workplace and an employee. Imagination and original ideas are needed. They have to nourish and encourage ideas. This takes giving leeway and allowing more ease in the system.

The modern leader needs to be creative or be very encouraging of those who are. Especially important will be allowing ideas to bubble up at all levels of the company and to prove the ability to go to experimental execution.


Given the chaotic speedy environment of business, combined with the need for more flexibility and collaboration, workplaces often are anxious. The modern leader needs to carry authority in ways other than command and control.

This leadership may involve a needed voice of wisdom. It may be a demand for accountability. It may be inspiration to galvanize the company. Regardless, the leader’s presence and voice need to be strong and able to be modulated according to the circumstance. Presence needs to be strong, whether literally present or not.


The new generation in the workforce is clever. They respect “clever” and they want it in a leader. Clever means “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas.”

I put this near the top of the list because this is a quality that supports high demand, constant change, new ways of working and serving the new consumer. Clever matters.

Conductor of change

The metaphor I like for modern leaders is the orchestra conductor. There is a “score” that pulls together all the possible sounds into a unique creation that satisfies or transforms the audience. Modern leaders are the conductors of change: following strategy, combining differences and effort, modulating speed and intensity, and leading the company to a grand finish. After that comes another performance. But first, allow for a “bravo” to provide recognition and energy for the next performance.


The constancy of the modern leader will be an important element of keeping the company steady in confused seas. It will involve having guiding principles to steer the work even when the work itself may be changing.

It means a steady hand on the rudder. It means constant steering without abrupt turns. It means the modern leader must be exceedingly grounded in the core of the business, its model for prospering and the values that will sustain it. Constancy does not mean rigidity but is instead the art of holding steady on confused seas.


Associates have been disengaged and disillusioned, often due to disillusionment with the character of their leaders. Being a leader of character simply means you have a good reputation in and out of the company.

There is a moral awareness that guides your work, and it is shown in all you do. You can be counted on and are rock steady because what you take a stand for doesn’t change with the circumstances. Your character is the rudder of your company.


Most CEOs want the top position. They have learned to live with pressure and being constantly observed and evaluated. They have experienced making big, big mistakes, surviving them and moving on. They have a tough hide.

The type of courage modern leaders require is the guts to be vulnerable when doing the right thing in the face of Wall Street demands, in firing a close colleague when necessary, in standing up to the board in defense of a policy that they don’t like, in owning up to disappointing results, and in leaning into the foundation of their personal and company values. When courage is needed, it can be an excruciating moment. 


I almost left this factor out because “compassion” has become so trendy. So has “kindness.” Then again, it is needed, and we seem to need to exaggerate when we are adding new behavior.

Unfortunately, nothing seems to trivialize a quality or skill faster than when business grabs hold of it. So, do not commoditize compassion. Top leaders must maintain compassion while taking actions that have a hurtful impact. Doing so assures you are human. And every CEO could use a little self-compassion.

This modern leader will have skills for “doing” but will need the qualities of “being” for the personal processes that support the work of the business. These are not soft skills. They are personally demanding.

Is this asking too much? Yes. But it is being asked for by the people in your company and demanded by the times. 


Joyce Wilson-Sanford has more than 25 years of professional experience in progressive and bold global organizational development work at the C-suite level. She is retired after her most recent role as executive vice president Of strategic organizational development with the Delhaize Group, now Ahold. In that position, Wilson-Sanford designed succession planning, created a high potential global program, and instituted a global leadership college. She was integral to acquisition work, as well as cultural due diligence and synergy work. Wilson-Sanford executed self-managed leadership development groups, introduced OD principles, values, and methods across nine companies and developed over 25 CEOs. 

She has two books in draft, “OD Maven” and “CEO Note to Self: The Blind Spots of Power.” Wilson-Sanford and a colleague share a podcast about their OD/HR success, failures, methods and hacks, which will be released in late summer/early fall 2020. Email her and check out her website.

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