How 10 top C-suite leadership traits are changing in 2021

From CEOs to CMOs, CIOs to CFOs, C-suite executives share some common leadership traitsthe ability to inspire and align others around shared objectives, an agile mindset and a robust understanding of the overall business, to name a few.   

While these core qualities have withstood the test of time, it is also true that different times call for additional skills. So what does effective leadership look like in times of COVID-19? What new qualities should the C-suite embrace to navigate a world spinning off its axis?   

IESE professors and other thought leaders have looked at what characteristics – some classics and others newer – an ideal CEO needs in 2021.  

10 C-Suite leadership skills you need

1. Stronginclusive and inspiring

Capable of motivating, inspiring and aligning the entire team behind a shared goalCrucial to this is emotional intelligence (EQ), which has two sides to it: first, the ability to recognize, understand and effectively manage one’s own emotional state, and second, the capacity to engage empathetically with others and appreciate their emotional states. Leaving this textbook definition aside, the maxim “People join companies; people leave bosses” perhaps best captures the essence of EQ.   

While often deemed a “soft skill” – and as such, less critical than technical proficiency and bottom-line results – EQ is critical for leaders who aspire to unite, motivate and align others. And in today’s COVID19 world, it has never been more crucial. 

2. A strategic vision 

For the medium-long term, balancing prudence and practicality.

Read the article about How to improve your strategic thinking

3. Flexible and able to manage change

With COVID-19 and its aftermath, staying put in a comfort zone is no longer an option.  

4. Principled and able to lead by example

Solidarity, closeness, humility, optimism and courage are values that have gained traction in society and in companies.   

The ambiguity unleashed by the pandemic has made it glaringly obvious that no one has all the answers, highlighting the need for humility and a willingness to listen to dissident voices. It’s also important to define humility as a concept since some mistake it for passivity or submissiveness, according to Edward D. Hess, a professor at UVA-Darden“Rather, it’s the ability to tame one’s ego and connect with others creatively. […] This is the gateway to an open mind, partly because it allows you to process new information without reacting fearfully or defensively, Hess says.   

IESE Prof. Sebastian Reiche agrees: “Research supports the positive notion of humility, linking it to inquisitiveness and openness towards learning and being taught by others.”  

C-suite leadership

5. Resilient and capable of managing adversity

By focusing on the available resources and what’s possible. 

6. Innovative

Profound changes that were already afoot pre-pandemic are now accelerated by crisis.

7. Decision-maker

Armed with a good decision-making process and data that’s appropriate for the question at hand.

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8. Efficient and results-oriented 

Since the business environment is increasingly competitive.

9. Collaborative

Able to work as part of a team and humanize the company.

Global leadership often conjures an image of the lone hero rousing the troops and leading his or her subordinates into battle, but the pandemic turned this notion on its head, according to Prof. Reiche.   

“Successful leadership is the result of a collective and collaborative effort, so there is a little of ‘Batman’ in this concept,” says Reiche. Batman didn’t have any supernatural powers like flight, laser vision or lightning-fast speed but he was smart enough to surround himself with others that did – and still hold his own. 

“The COVID-19 crisis perfectly illustrates the need for cooperation.”  

Sebastian Reiche, IESE professor 

“No leader alone can battle the crisis without the collective effort to physically distance, wear masks, take responsible decisions and seek collaborative efforts to develop treatments, save small businesses and adapt to virtual realities”. 

10. Communicative and a good listener

Not only must corporate goals and values be clear, but they must also be conveyed.  

The pandemic has also taught us that people have different reactions to risk and uncertainty, which is why C-suite leaders need to communicate clearly and empathetically and create forums for connection, not one-way channels.   

In this regard, IESE Prof. Yago de la Cierva says overcommunicating is far better than a lack of communication“Silence never works. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’. Even if we think we’ve said everything we know, keep insisting. Transparency is the only element that works”. 

Learn more about IESE’s top-ranked programs for high-level executives like you, including theAdvanced Management Program and Global CEO Program. 

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