Make no mistake about it—remote work and decentralized teams are here to stay. If you’re a leader at work, have you adapted your leadership style to fit this evolving landscape? If not, you might take a cue from these five traits of effective modern leaders—and then take our quick assessment to see how your leadership skills stack up.​

From working at home to deeper reliance on technology, tighter budgets to redesigned processes, the global pandemic has catapulted us into a new remote era of work.

As a leader, you’ve probably weathered some pretty rough seas over the past year. Keeping your head above water and organization afloat have undoubtedly occupied much of your time since last March.

Now that things have (hopefully) settled down a bit, you might want to turn your attention to what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s environment.

Connect with Human Needs​

In 1997, longtime Center for Creative Leadership fellow and author Kerry Bunker penned a remarkably prescient article in Consulting Psychology Journal about leadership in times of chaos and change.

Writing about the tectonic shift in the American workplace during the 1970s and 1980s—when leaders had to adapt to changes precipitated by the migration from an employee-first culture to a shareholder-first culture—Bunker’s reflections are startlingly relevant today:

"Although…sweeping changes may represent necessary adjustments to a more competitive world…they also combined to have dramatic impact and fallout relative to the human and emotional well-being of the system, and thereby on the bottom line and performance of an organization." ​

What he was really saying is this: During times of chaos and transition, we need leaders who can connect with the human needs of the people on their teams.

The Five Traits of Effective Modern Leaders

So what does “connecting with human needs” look like?

For today’s modern leaders, it’s about putting new twists on some tried-and-true leadership traits. Here, we’ve identified five hallmarks of a modern leader—and why each trait is so critical to long-term success.

Five separate circles in a row, each containing one of the five traits of a modern leader: First Circle is for Decision Making. The circle graphic contains a bullseye icon with a flag in the target, the second circle is Resilience and contains a graph icon showing improvement over time, the third circle is for Communication and contains conversation bubbles with a question in one and an answer in another, the fourth circle is for Collaboration and shows four hands (North, East, South, West) coming to meet in the middle with arrows located near the outer portion of the circle pointing in a circular motion, the fifth circle is Vulnerability and shows a pair of hands holding a heart.

#1 Decision-making that inspires trust. ​

Loosely defined, decision-making is the process through which leaders choose between two or more possible alternatives. For modern leaders, this goes a little deeper. Decision-making must consider available, relevant information, as well as an organization’s stated values, beliefs, and goals.

Today’s remote workers can sometimes struggle to connect with their teams as well as with their leader—the very person charged with keeping everyone connected. One of the best ways a leader can connect with others is by building trust.

When leaders make decisions based on shared values and goals, employees feel leaders are paying attention to how work is being done. This fosters trust and connection because employees sense leaders recognize what they (the workers) need.

#2 Resilience for the long haul. ​

Resilience—the ability to absorb stress and find a way to not only survive, but thrive, in changing circumstances—is not necessarily about being comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. It’s about embracing these things and seeing a way through. It’s being willing to say, “I can figure out how to make this work now. In the future, I may have to figure it out again, and the people who work with me are going to have to do that, too.” Modern leaders accept that change is inevitable. Their ability to persevere in times of adversity inspires trust and a uniting attitude of “we’re in this together.”

#3 Communication that shows empathy. ​

Communication, a tool used to inform, inspire, and empower, may be more important now than ever. Effective leaders are active listeners. They pay attention, engage, don’t just talk in one direction, and are clear and transparent. Perhaps most critically, they show empathy in how they communicate. Empathy shows a leader understands, or is working to understand, circumstances under which their teams are working. When leaders demonstrate understanding, rather than overlooking it and focusing solely on results, they help distributed teams feel more connected to their work, their teams, and their leaders.

#4 Collaboration that leans on worker expertise. ​

These days, collaboration goes beyond breaking down the hierarchies and silos of yesteryear. For modern leaders, collaboration means relying on the knowledge, experience, and creativity of people throughout an organization—not just those at the top. This doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, but this creates shared accountability and focuses on creating and building partnerships that lead to success.

#5 Vulnerability. ​

There’s been a lot of talk around vulnerability in the last couple of years—and it’s critical to leaders of today. Vulnerability is about leadership based less on control and more on being open and accepting of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Showing vulnerability does not come naturally to everyone. But we all have the capacity for courage, compassion, and authenticity. Modern leaders find a way to turn that on in an organization. They are willing to rely on others. They don’t feel they need to know the answer all the time—and they’re open about that. Far from showing weakness, vulnerability makes leaders more relatable and authentic, inspiring trust and stronger teams.

Are You a Modern Leader?​

How might you assess your effectiveness as a leader of today?

At XPLANE, we developed the Modern Leadership Canvas, a one-page assessment framework that can help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. It can also help you:

  • Understand existing leadership dynamics in your organization
  • Pinpoint skill areas where you need support, training, and coaching
  • Identify critical skills and/or gaps in leadership for hiring purposes
  • Generate defined internal conversations around what leadership means in your organization
  • Set expectations for leadership behavior across your organization
  • Design the leadership culture and behaviors you desire in your organization

At the heart of our Modern Leadership Canvas is a series of continuums. To complete this exercise, you’ll need to assess where you fall on a scale between two actions.

  • Note: For additional input, you can also ask coworkers and team members to complete this exercise on your behalf.

For instance:

  • Do you generally tell employees specifically what to do or encourage them to think about different ways to get work done?
  • Do you tend to shed responsibility or take responsibility?
  • Do you hold onto information tightly or regularly share information?
  • When it comes to building strengths versus fixing weaknesses, where do you fall?
  • Regarding communication, are your conversations more one way (a monologue) or two way (dialogue)?

After completing the assessment, map your numeric results to a spider map (aka histogram). This will help you easily see areas where you show strength in modern leadership and where there are opportunities for skill development.

Scores of four or five across all areas represent excellent leadership. Anything lower than four highlights an area or areas that need development.

We Welcome Your Input!​

The Modern Leadership Canvas is a tool to help start conversations about leadership today. It’s also a tool that’s in beta—and we’re currently seeking feedback from those who use it.

We value your insights and appreciate you taking the time to help us make this tool a top-notch resource going forward.

Want to Learn More?​

We recommend the following blog posts:

And if you have thoughts or questions about how leadership is evolving in today’s remote world, please reach out to us!