Right after grad school, I landed an ideal role as an AI product manager at a top tech company. I didn’t love it, and the reason was simple: culture. Team members ate lunch alone. No one really talked except to bicker. “Toxic” is an apt description.
I finally talked to my boss. I told him that I was unhappy and didn’t feel like I was growing. His answer—“It is not my job to grow you”—was a turning point in my life.
My boss was a good manager, not a good leader. Despite bringing together an extraordinary team, he didn’t care about building a team dynamic. Instead, he—and those he answered to—focused exclusively on execution, milestones, and results. They missed a great opportunity to build a strong culture that could carry on beyond this team and this project.
Through the experiences that followed, and after reading hundreds of books on the topic, I realized that the fluctuating future of work demands a new type of leadership. We need leaders who can acclimate to these shifts with grace and panache. We need dynamic leadership. Let me break down what that means, starting with three macro changes that spurred these shifts on in the first place.
The New Styles of Work
My ex-boss’s leadership style wasn’t awesome back then, but today, it just doesn’t work. This will only become more true as the talent economy develops. Retaining valuable talent isn’t about whether or not your office has an open floorplan or cold brew coffee on tap. The how of how we work has shifted, too—invaluable team members are just as likely to come from halfway around the world or through a talent platform as from a few offices down the hall.
Three major factors are driving these changes:
1. Remote work. According to predictions, by 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce. They want a sense of ownership and flexibility, and a clear growth path beyond just the organization. Leaders have to adapt to provide this.
2. Employee expectations. The talent economy is an employee marketplace. More importantly, it’s critical to create an environment that’s comfortable and tight-knit, no matter where your team is based. On my team for Guide—an app that equips high school students with the skills for college readiness and career success—I set a 30-minute weekly wellness check to make sure I’m building relationships and chemistry. Leaders have to start being preemptive in this way.
3. Increased pace of change. The pressure to change and adapt will intensify over the next five years. Leaders need to be dynamic enough to create cultures that are primed for rapid adaptation.
Leaders need a completely different skill set than their predecessors. Here’s what I suggest.
The Seven Attributes of Dynamic Leadership
I compiled this list by reading more than 200 books a year and doing a bit of soul-searching from my own experiences.
Dynamic leaders see these habits as tools in a toolbox. They’re able to utilize one or a combination of these seven qualities at any given time. Their expertise comes from knowing when to pivot between them. The attributes are:
1. Purpose/Why. Leaders build a clear, rational, and inspiring Why to unite their company or team around a common goal. I found my Why through deep introspection. I ask that today’s leaders do the same.
2. Authenticity. Leaders need to show up as their best and full self, especially given the demand for transparency and open-mindedness in company cultures. Leaders must realize the opportunity to connect with their team in a unique way.
When I was building Guide, I bootstrapped. By connecting with educators and those who espoused Guide’s values, transparency came naturally.
3. Adaptability. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, helped create a trillion-dollar company in the last six years, focusing on cloud computing and committing Microsoft to be carbon negative by 2030. That resurgence is an amazing example of leading through adaptability.
4. Boldness. Bold leaders are not afraid to make decisions and risks to align their output with their purpose. Guide has been successful as a global education-tech startup because we made a bold declaration on day one: The future of skills-based education and adaptive learning software looks like this.
5. Clarity. Leaders find clarity in life and at work by understanding what they want to achieve and intentionally moving toward that outcome and goal. Without clarity, you cannot bring a vision to fruition.
Take Shonda Rhimes, the American writer and producer. She’s worked with Oprah and has made more than $500 million with various studios through hits such as Grey’s Anatomy. From early on, she was laser-focused on writing for the screen, and every move she made was toward that end. Shonda’s story shows the power of a clear vision for life and work.
They tell you: Follow your dreams… Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until your dream comes true. I think that’s crap. I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, powerful, engaged people are busy doing.
– Shonda Rhimes
6. Compassion. Leaders not only empathize but act on behalf of those in their care. When building Guide, I worked with someone who wanted to eventually go into corporate IT training. I said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you do that.” I worked to get her to that point. Being compassionate means understanding the growth plan of the talent you manage, not just in terms of what they can do while employed by your company.
7. We (community). When a leader leads with We, it means they are not in it as a dictator, but as a team-builder. They create a culture that achieves goals through collaboration and a group effort.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky created a leadership team that had a radical vision of making life easier for both hosts and travelers. Community was always part of the culture, and Chesky worked to improve Airbnb’s extended community of hosts, government, private sector, and nonprofits. Great leaders go deep into the totality of the experience or product they’re providing and rally around that.
Knowing What to Emphasize, When
So, how do you know which quality to prioritize and when? The power of intuition is most critical, and AI can’t duplicate or replicate that. Understanding what quality or attribute is necessary at any given moment is what makes a great leader.
Back to Satya Nadella’s example. He realized that, if Microsoft was to experience a renewed success, he’d have to imbue a different mindset and vision. He recognized that they were in a time of change. He came into the position with an intuition, a feeling. Then he listened. Finally, he implemented new directives. He encouraged Microsoft to be an open-platform company, even with active competitors like Salesforce. Because he saw with clarity and emphasized adaptability, he was able to turn Microsoft around.
A leader must be aware of the context. It’s not about one leadership style, because today’s work environment demands multiple attributes. Leaders have to be able to think on their feet.
This dynamism separates good from great leaders, and great leaders from legendary ones.