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8 Essential Leadership Competencies for the 21st Century

Updated on September 20, 2013

Organizational behavior and leadership experts would argue that effective leadership is essential for organizational success. If so, what competencies are essential for effective leadership? This hub offers definitions and examples of some of the most recognized competencies of effective leaders.

What are Competencies?

A team of experts at the Society for Human Resource Management (2008) defined competencies as skills and behaviors that contribute to superior performance. As related to leadership, leadership competencies would likewise be defined as skills best suited to move follower-subordinates within the organization to give their optimal performance in order to accomplish the organization's stated vision and purpose.

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8 Key Leadership Competencies for the 21st Century

Organizational behavior scholars have identified a number of leadership competencies. In this hub, I will highlight eight leadership competencies relevant for the 21st century. The eight featured leadership skills and behaviors include:

  • Awareness
  • Foresight
  • Decisiveness
  • Adaptability
  • Enablement
  • Humility
  • Unifier
  • Communication


Awareness refers to the extent to which a given leader pays attention to what is going on around him. An effective leader will continuously scan the internal and external environment in which his or her organization operates and competes. He or she will do so to gain a clear picture of the prevailing circumstances. Inside the organization the leader will monitor the attitudes and actions of members as well as regularly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the organization as a whole. Outside the organization, the effective director will stay abreast of potential threats and opportunities that could influence future operations.


Foresight refers to the extent to which a given leader demonstrates the ability to accurately access the likely outcome of present and future decisions and actions. While one can know be certain about the future, effective leaders show a keen sense of insight and intuition concerning the potential success or failure of a course of action. Some would call this wisdom. Whatever the label, such insight and intuition is informed by past experience and continuous update of knowledge about the prevailing market.


A third key leadership competency is decisiveness. The best corporate directors demonstrate not only awareness and foresight, but also the ability to make decisions including tough decisions in adverse conditions. Effective leaders are not overwhelmed by what they see. They assess the present and future, make a plan to move organization forward, and put the plan into action.


Adaptability is another key leadership competency, especially in the age of globalization of the 21st century. Adaptability refers to the extent to which a given leader can make relevant alterations in order to move the organization to its best end. Effective leaders understand the environment in which the organization operates will change. They anticipate and even embrace change and do not allow themselves to get locked into a one size fits all strategy.

Moreover, in the 21st century, the workforce became more diverse with follower-subordinates coming from a variety of cultural backgrounds. The effective leader of the 21st century will be demonstrate the ability to adapt his or her leadership style to get the optimal performance from his workforce. In many cases, cross-cultural sensitivity training will be essential in order that future managers and directors will know how to relate to and motivate follower-subordinates from different ethnic backgrounds.


Effective leaders are unifiers. The ability to bring follower-subordinates, peers, and other stakeholders together as one unit is essential in order to accomplish a common purpose. As described in their book The Leadership Challenge,James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2012) found that top corporate directors were seen by their subordinates as those who united the organization's members for a shared vision.

Negotiating skill is another related leadership competency. The ability to unify followers and other stakeholders under a common vision and purpose takes adept negotiating skills. Thus, the ability to negotiate settlements is another competency related to effective leadership in the 21st century. Well-seasoned negotiators listen to all sides in order to discern the needs of all members involved. Unifiers help settle disputes in a way that nearly all feel satisfied.


A sixth essential leadership competency is the ability to enable or empower follower-subordinates to do what they were hired to do. Effective corporate directors create an organizational environment that grants employees the means and opportunity to thrive in their positions. Kouzes and Posner show that effective leaders enable others to act by (a) fostering collaboration and facilitating relationships and (b) strengthening them by increasing self-determination and developing competence.


Humility refers to the extent to which a given leader has an accurate view of his or her own self and is willing to share the spotlight with others. Effective leaders in the 21st century do not over state their own personal value or under state the value of their employees. Jim Collins found that some of the most successful leaders of Fortune 500 companies were those who were reluctant to take credit for the success and quick to pass the credit on to their subordinates. This type of leadership behavior instills trust and enables them even more so.


Communication skill is another essential competency relevant to effecitve leadership. Communication skill includes the practice of active listening and persuasive speech.

Robert Greenleaf (1998) included listening and persuasion in his model of servant leadership. Listening is involved in a number of the competencies listed above including awareness and enablement.

Persuasion refers to the ability of the leader to convince followers to join in a cause without the use of coercion or threat of force. Effective leaders do not threaten employees. Instead they craft compelling visions and articulate them with vivid mental models. They develop and hone their verbal communication skills in order to move subordinates onto a common agenda. The vision will be most compelling if the followers were given the opportunity to play a part in the development of the vision.


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