A Look Ahead at Leadership 2016 / 2017: Redefining Leadership






Leading others in the new world of work looks profoundly different from managing employees in previous decades[1]. New generations entering the workforce pose major challenges for those in leadership positions holding on to outdated management styles and hierarchical position thinking. The impact of an open talent economy, the power of social networks, and increased access to knowledge and information have freed many employees from autocratic management styles, leading to a new social dynamic between leaders and followers.

One could argue that even the meaning of leadership has fundamentally changed over the past few decades. Today, we define leadership as “the act of influencing others through socially acceptable conduct that encourages intended behavior and the pursuit of a common goal.”[2] This reiterates a long-standing principle of organizational development and leadership: Leadership can emerge at all levels in an organization, regardless of an individual’s position or status in the hierarchy. As leaders are being asked to intensify their efforts to respond, guide, and lead (instead of manage and control), the way organizations assess, identify, and develop leaders must also evolve.

Our recently published High-Impact Leadership Maturity Model and research is based on more than 2,000 survey responses from global HR and business leaders. Its findings are a gold mine for subsequent research, and we are excited to more deeply explore the most important insights to help organizations improve the way they develop their leaders. The topics that will guide our efforts in the coming year are influenced by the trends we are observing in the leadership development industry, as well as the most frequently asked question by our members.

Currently, five big topics are on the horizon in the areas of leadership and succession management:

  1. Leadership in the open talent economy
  2. Formal leadership programs under scrutiny
  3. The meaning of high potential
  4. Digital leadership
  5. Building collaboration and alignment between HR and business leaders

We discuss each of these topics in greater detail below.

Topic 1: Leadership in the Open Talent Economy

Just as the open source model changed the world of software development, so too is the open talent (or ”gig”) economy changing the world of work.[3] Some sources now estimate that more than 1 billion people will work virtually in the next few years.[4] The workplace will now include many more contractors and freelancers who have fewer ties to organizations and can easily walk out the door whenever they like. What does this mean for leadership?

In our quest to address this topic, we will explore the following questions:

  • How does leadership in the open talent economy differ from traditional workplaces? Are the capabilities needed to lead individuals across organizational boundaries truly different from those in traditional forms of work—or do they reemphasize the need for transformational or inspirational leaders who provide direction, vision, and meaning?
  • How can organizations prepare? The skills and qualities needed by leaders working with contractors, freelancers, and virtual staff may differ from those of the past. We want to know which leadership development efforts, theories, and models—as well as which solution providers—can cater to these inevitable changes in the talent economy.

Topic 2: Formal Leadership Programs under Scrutiny

Our latest global leadership research confirmed the suspicions of many in the industry: that an exclusive reliance on formal programs for leadership development is one of the causes of the current dearth of available leadership talent. Our research has shown that leadership development happens in the organizational context; currently, however, only 25 percent of the 2,000 companies we surveyed actually use their organizational context to drive leadership development.

Based on our foundational research, in the coming year we will write about how top organizations utilize their context to develop leaders and address the topics below:

  • Building a culture of leadership and learning. The quest for developing employees at all levels lies at the heart of a culture that considers all individuals to be potential leaders. We will dig into our data in order to link our High-Impact Talent Management and High-Impact Leadership research efforts, looking for the essence of how top organizations build the right culture for leadership and learning for all employees.
  • The meaning of exposure in the context of leadership development. One of the top findings of our High-Impact Leadership research was that exposure via interactions with peers, thought leaders, colleagues, and other professionals is the best facilitator of leadership learning. In the coming year, we will explore this finding in detail and share a variety of examples of organizations that excel at providing development opportunities via exposure for their leaders.
  • How organizational structure links to leadership capability. What does a matrix structure have to do with leadership development, and how can an organization’s structure relate to leadership growth? Rather than investigating org charts, we will study the way work and decision-making are coordinated as structural components that influence leadership capability.

Topic 3: The Meaning of High-Potential

Surprisingly, many organizations wrestle with the identification and assessment of high-potential talent. We think the problem lies deeper: This struggle persists because many companies don’t define what high potential actually means in their organizations.

Our research in 2017 will explore HiPo identification by addressing the following questions:

  • How can organizations identify their HiPos? Our research found a clear link between strong HiPo strategies and an organization’s business strategy, company identity, and leadership brand. In our upcoming research on the topic, we will describe our newest findings regarding current trends in HiPo assessment methods, scan the market for solution providers able to accommodate this need, and provide some guidance for organizations rethinking their approach in this area.
  • What are the key drivers of effective succession management? A solid HiPo strategy, along with effective identification and assessment practices, are critical elements of building organizational bench strength. Our upcoming research efforts will focus on the talent outcomes organizations can expect when putting solid succession management processes in place, and tie them to current leading practices in HiPo identification.

Topic 4: Digital Leadership

One of the hottest topics in leadership at the moment is the question of digital leadership. Our members want to know what this means, what it looks like, and how they can prepare for the digital work place of the future.

We will tackle this issue by addressing the following questions:

  • Which digital solutions are topping the list for leadership development? We are currently observing the emergence of a fascinating vendor space in which science and technology play a huge role in leadership development offerings. Gamification, artificial intelligence, and mobile apps are emerging as fascinating new ways to develop leadership capabilities. We will scan the market, explore a series of solution providers, describe their features, and offer guidelines for selections that fit your organization’s needs.
  • What are the qualities of a digital leader? Leadership capabilities are changing in our digital, connected, and virtual world of work. Based on a new leadership framework developed by our Deloitte research colleagues, in the coming year we will study whether existing leadership competency models need to be expanded with new qualities for a digital age—as well as how this will affect HiPo identification strategies and leadership development efforts.

Topic 5: Building Collaboration & Alignment between HR & Business Leaders

The merger of talent and business in the service of leadership growth is an old challenge that won’t be going away any time soon. Our newest data tells us that while HR and business leaders think very differently about leadership development, the top organizations have found a way for these two factions to collaborate closely and effectively .

To shed more light on the reasons for this misalignment, as well as ways to improve relationships between HR and business when it comes to leadership development, we will explore the following questions:

  • Why should HR and business collaborate on leadership development? Our research tells us the most successful organizations have very strong ties between HR and business leaders at all levels (while the majority of organizations struggle to achieve the same). Our coming research will dig more deeply into our data to demonstrate where the main differences lie between HR and non-HR leaders when it comes to leadership development efforts; describe the detrimental effects of this misalignment; and provide guidance to organizations wanting to strengthen the ties between the two functions.
  • How to create a leadership strategy. The ultimate goal of the alignment between HR and business leaders on leadership growth initiatives is the creation of a solid leadership strategy. The successful establishment of a chain going from business strategy to leadership capability to performance outcomes requires a deep understanding of the needs of the business—and this is strongly enabled by a solid working relationship between HR and business leaders at all levels. Our upcoming research will use our existing data on the links between strategic objectives, needed leadership capabilities, and business outcomes to describe how organizations can facilitate seamless integration between business and talent professionals with the aim of developing leaders with the capabilities the company needs.


Of course, we expect to expand the scope of these trends in the coming year and anticipate new and additional topics that will call for our attention. We look forward to continuing our work with our members, our colleagues in Deloitte consulting, and many other stakeholders in the quest to help organizations build the leaders their businesses need.

Would you like to be part of our research? Join the Bersin Research Exchange: Data in, insights out! Share your leading practices and receive research-based rewards such as reports, diagnostics, and white papers. Register now: https://bersin.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4G8gMi0TAwr9xch?source=LDBlog.

For questions and comments, please email me at aderler@deloitte.com

[1] For more information, see: (1) Predictions for 2015: Redesigning the Organization for a Rapidly Changing World, Bersin by Deloitte / Josh Bersin, 2015; (2) The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016: Winning over the next generation of leaders, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2016, http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html.

[2] Personalfuehrung, Juergen Weibler / Vahlen, 2016.

[3] The open talent economy: People and work in a borderless workplace, Deloitte Development LLC / Andy Liakopoulos, Lisa Barry, and Jeff Schwartz, July 2013, http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/dttl-hc-english-opentalenteconomy.pdf.

[4] “The Third Wave of Virtual Work,” Harvard Business Review / Tammy Johns and Lynda Gratton, January-February 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-third-wave-of-virtual-work.

Andrea Derler

Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

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