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leader and team

What Does it Mean to Be a Modern Leader?

We look at the qualities and characteristics of a modern leader

leader and team

“Everyone is a leader. Including you.” – Kirstin Ferguson

Modern leaders have a job to do.

There’s a war on talent and 67% of employees don’t feel ‘engaged.' (1) There are record levels of burnout and lots of ‘quiet quitting.’ Post-pandemic we find ourselves in a volatile (VUCA) world and people have change fatigue.

Kirstin Ferguson in her book “Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership” says modern leadership is not about a formal title, it is about the impact and influence you have on others.

“We don’t want leaders who only seek to command others, but instead who draw on the strengths and collective leadership of those around them.” she says.

So what are the qualities and characteristics of a modern leader? And are they so different to the traditional types of leader? Let’s take a look. 


Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2023 


How is Modern Leadership Different From Traditional Leadership?  

“It cannot be overstated just how influential a bad boss can be in causing people to leave.” – McKinsey & Co.

We know different leadership styles result in stark differences in team performance and happiness. 

Modern leaders work hard to have a positive impact on those they lead. A UK study found happiness leads to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers prove to be 10% less productive.

Traditional “command and control” leadership uses authority to push though crises. However, a China study found authoritarian leadership negatively affected subordinates’ task performance.

The traditional leader may run a one-leader show by doing all the thinking, micromanaging, diminishing others, and displaying other diminisher leader traits.


By contrast, the modern leader draws on the strengths and collective leadership of others, considers employee wellbeing, is humble, and continually learning.  

What Are the Principles of Modern Leadership?  

Research shows a 30% increase in business performance can be directly attributed to the ‘climate that leaders create’ through their style of leadership.

Modern leadership creates a temperate climate; its principles centred around connecting with the human needs of the people on their teams.(2) 

Since the pandemic, workers’ attitudes to their bosses and the workplace has shifted. The post-pandemic employee wants to be:

·       Cared for.

·       Safe.

·       Challenged.

·       Doing something meaningful and inspirational.

·       Developed, coached and mentored so they can advance their careers.

·       Given autonomy and flexibility, not micromanaged. According to a July 2022 study of 13,382 global workers by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 40% said workplace flexibility was a top motivator in whether they stayed in a role.

Below we list the modern leadership principles best suited to these outcomes.


There is no doubt the military-shaped “command and control” leader is courageous when leading troops into battle or out of a crisis.

However, a modern leader also displays a different kind of courage.

It is the courage to be seen as a flawed human; to be vulnerable among your peers and colleagues. It is the courage to do the right thing, not the convenient thing. It is the courage to ensure people feel safe to make mistakes so they can learn. It is also the courage to be deeply humble.

Former Australian soccer captain Craig Foster, speaking to Kirstin Ferguson for her book, says “Courage is the willingness to lift other people up and give credit to others, not oneself.”  


Self- Awareness 

Most movies, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Harry Potter, use the storytelling arc of the ‘hero’s journey.’

The main character goes on a journey of learning, self-discovery, and self-transformation. With this new self-awareness they can be fully available to love and help others.

‘Vertical Growth’ author Michael Bunting says it’s about “exploring downward in ourselves to resolve our deep-seated assumptions, fears and patterns in order to grow upward into our best selves.”

He says modern leaders take a self-aware, growth mindset approach to life’s challenges.


Self -Motivation  

Modern leaders understand that people are more likely to be self-motivated when given autonomy in a supportive environment.

A Melbourne Uni study said intrinsic motivation was more likely when workers:

·       Can freely choose to pursue their work activities.

·       Feel they can master their tasks.

·       Are surrounded by important and supportive people like managers, mentors, peers and friends, finding a sense of relatedness.

"Our study showed that autonomy support leads to positive outcomes like intrinsic motivation, wellness, engagement and more committed and loyal employees," explains Melbourne Graduate School of Education study author Gavin Slemp. (4)


Growth Mindset and Rethinking

Modern leaders don’t stick to ideas that are obsolete.

Rejecting the fixed mindset of traditional leaders, the modern leader practices rethinking or unlearning.

“Rethinking isn’t just disagreeing with others; it’s learning to disagree with ourselves.” – Adam Grant

Adam Grant, author of Think Again and Originals, told our 2022 masterclass that people who practise rethinking:

·       Are constantly aware of the limits of their understanding.

·       Doubt what they know.

·       Are curious about what they don’t know.

·       Update their views based on new data.

By networking, reading widely and investing in online learning platforms, modern leaders keep up-to-date with the latest leadership ideas and thinking.


Problem Solving

The agility, resilience, and adaptability of a modern leader is seen in their approach to problem solving.

As Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory say in “Forever Skills”, such leaders see problems as where opportunities hide.

They say people will always be in demand who can:

·       Learn to love problems.

·       Think in questions, not statements.

·       Look for answers, not the answer.

·       Do the work (creativity is a numbers game).

·       Fail well.

Instead of seeing problems as setbacks and roadblocks, the modern leader asks questions about any opportunities in the challenge. 

We will interview Kirstin Ferguson about her book ‘Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership’ in late February on the Growth Faculty book club. Keep reading for details at the end of this article.

kirstin ferguson


What Are the Characteristics of a Modern Leader?  

Daniel Coyle summarises the characteristics of successful cultures in ‘The Culture Code.’

The same characteristics are present in the modern leader who sends clear messages of safety, belonging, and high expectations to their team. 

“You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can reach those standards.”

Here’s how they do it:  


Modern Leaders Focus on Wellbeing  

A positive workplace culture is not just the absence of a toxic work culture. It is being proactive on wellbeing.

A good example of this is Vitaco Health Group, known for nutrition and supplement brands Musashi, Aussie Bodies, Nutra-Life, and Healtheries.

Vitaco’s Chief People and Culture Officer Lucinda Warren is a modern leader taking wellbeing seriously.

She and her team are embedding a comprehensive wellbeing program called “Six Ways to Wellbeing”.  Here are the 6 ways:

·       Keep Learning - Encourage new experiences, see opportunities, surprise yourself.

·       Be Active - Do what you can, enjoy what you do, move your mood.

·       Take Notice - Remember the simple things that give you joy.

·       Give - your time, your words, your presence.

·       Connect - Talk and Listen, be there, feel connected.

·       Nourish - Fuel to be at your best today and all your tomorrows.

Modern Leaders Practice Empathy  

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the epitome of a modern leader, is known for being excited about the power of empathy in leadership. 

As Forbes points out, ‘empathy’ is mentioned 53 times in his book Hit Refresh.

In an interview with Think Again’ author Adam Grant Nadella said that empathy was ‘a wellspring for innovation’ since ‘innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.’

Kirstin Ferguson (‘Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership’) suggests a lack of empathy can keep leaders disconnected with those around them. Empathy is a sign of emotional intelligence that opens us up to diverse ideas and experiences. 

“Modern leaders recognise it is in those differences where value can be gained and incorporated into our decision-making to drive better outcomes for all.”


Modern Leaders Empower  

Modern leaders are multiplier leaders. That is, they assume intelligence in their team members. They appreciate and respect their strengths and abilities, and as a result they score high on employee engagement.

Here are 5 Multiplier traits to try to maximise in your team leadership.

·       Talent magnet – Attract and optimise talent.

·       Liberator – Create space for best thinking and demand best work.

·       Challenger – Extend stretch challenges.

·       Debate maker – Drive sound sound decisions through rigorous debate.

·       Investor – Instill ownership and accountability. 

Modern Leaders Are Cooperative  

Remote and hybrid work has highlighted the importance of cooperation in the workplace.

Teams and their leaders have had to negotiate days in office, meeting protocols, reporting methods, use of digital communication tools, and even the concept of leisure time.


In CEO Excellence’, McKinsey & Co senior partners explain that great teamwork requires:

·       Alignment on direction – a shared belief about what the company is striving towards and the role of the team in getting there.

·       High-quality interaction, characterised by trust, open communication, and a willingness to embrace conflict.

·       Strong sense of renewal, meaning an environment in which team members become energised because they feel they can take risks, innovate, and learn from outside ideas.

Modern leaders work hard to promote teamwork and cross-functional collaboration (i.e. they don’t stick to siloed departments).

Modern leaders are adaptable  

Probably the most important trait in the post-pandemic leader is adaptability.

The modern leader must adapt to worker shortages, worker ambivalence, a hybrid workforce, supply and cost challenges, technology and disruption, mental health issues, and an uncertain future.

Executive coach John Spence told our masterclass that IQ, EQ, and AQ are emerging as key characterics of the modern leader.

AQ stands for adaptability (or agility) quotient. It is our aptitude for successfully navigating change.

In a VUCA world John suggests countering volatility with vision, meeting uncertainty with understanding, reacting to complexity with clarity, and fighting ambiguity with agility.


What Modern Leadership Styles Make a Difference?  

Different leadership styles work for different situations, but some types of leadership may be more suitable in the modern workforce than others. 


These include transformational leadership, adaptive or agile leadership, servant leadership, and authentic leadership.

Let’s have a look at each, and you may also like to read about studies on men and women in leadership.


Transformational Leadership  

Transformational leaders inspire people to achieve unexpected or remarkable results by inspiring them with vision and purpose.

Transformational leaders typically perform 4 distinct behaviours (the four ‘I’s):

·       inspirational motivation

·       idealised influence

·       intellectual stimulation

·       individualised consideration. 

Transformational leadership enhances commitment, involvement, loyalty, and performance of followers. Followers emulate and exert extra effort for this type of leader. (5)

Adaptive or Agile Leadership 


In a competitive, disruptive, fast-changing world, a leadership style that can cope with the new and unknown is required.

Adaptive leaders are great with people, and capable of shifts that move an organisation towards a future state.

For example, with such changes as work from home and the war on talent, an adaptive leader creates the sort of workplace that will attract and retain the best talent.

Adaptive leaders tend to be open-minded, armed with a growth mindset, have high EQ, and are committed to achieve goals.  


Servant Leadership  

Research published in ScienceDirect shows 3 features make up the essence of servant leadership:


Starkly different to other leadership styles, servant leaders have an orientation towards others. Their motivation is not focused in on themselves. It’s about someone or something other than the leader. 


Servant leaders use one-on-one interactions with followers to help them grow in areas such as their psychological wellbeing, emotional maturity, and ethical wisdom.


With a mindset reflecting that of a trustee, servant leaders ensure that both their followers and other resources within the organisation will be responsibly cultivated and grown.

Authentic leadership 

Being an authentic leader is about being genuine. It’s about integrity. It’s about sincerity. Like the ethical leader who has a conviction to ‘do the right thing’, the authentic leader values transparency and strong values, and also assumes positive intent in others.

They make sure everyone is noticed and participating. The authentic leader is self-aware, empathetic, and looks for opportunities to express genuine gratitude and appreciation.

Learn the Art of Modern Leadership with Kirstin Ferguson’s Live Book Club Event  

As Kirstin Ferguson says, modern leadership is about leading with the head (curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability) and the heart (humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy).

We will interview Kirstin Ferguson about her book ‘Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership’ in late February on the Growth Faculty book club. Save your spot now. (Note: This event is included in the Growth Faculty Pass for members).

If you'd like to increase your professional and personal development why not consider becoming a Growth Faculty Pass holder? Unlimited access to 40 live virtual masterclasses and Global Headliner virtual events - PLUS year-round leadership content at On Demand with videos, podcasts and book summaries. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. See who's up next. 


1. 36 Powerful Leadership Statistics [2023]: Things All Aspiring Leaders Should Know, Zippia

2. ‘Leaders are grown, not born.’, Korn Ferry HayGroup 2016 study

3. Greg Netzer, 2021, ‘To Be an Effective Modern Leader, Cultivate These Five Traits’, XPlane website

4. Linda Mcsweeny, 2018, ‘Allowing employees to be self-driven improves performance, study shows’, University of Melbourne.

5. Transformational leadership, Wikipedia

Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash


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