How To Be A Great Leader In 2021


If you are in a leadership position in almost any sector, you might be settling into the idea that things are not going to just “go back to normal” post-pandemic.  Education won’t be the same, retail won’t be the same, the hospitality industry won’t be the same, the church won’t be the same.  These industries will be forever changed because of COVID. 


Leaders who come to grips with this now will have a chance to lead the continued change that must take place post-pandemic.  Leaders who rely on their previous skill sets/tools may find themselves behind the curve without the ability to thrive in the new world.  

Here are a handful of things that great leaders in the 2020s will have in common.

Get Comfortable with Chaos

A great leader in the 2020s builds their own tolerance for chaos, and helps their organizations get comfortable with chaos.  The year 2020 has likely been the most chaotic in our lives, but the COVID vaccine will not bring the end of chaos.  Moving into the next iteration of our world is likely to be similarly chaotic.  

Effective leaders for the 2020s will be ones who provide just enough structure to allow for the chaos of innovative ideas.  Too much structure, and your team will be stuck in too-small thinking.  Too little structure, and inordinate amounts of energy will be used up in chaotic ideas without enough energy left for sustaining the work.  

Connect, Connect, Connect

A great leader in 2021 will connect more deeply in all directions.  

  • Your team has been through a lot, and connecting more meaningfully with them will build cohesion for your group.  Find ways to check in that aren’t “checking up on.”  Connect about things outside of work — a shared interest, pet updates, playing a game of meme uno, etc.
  • Build relationships with colleagues doing similar work.   Invest in a colleague group where you can go to get new ideas, to share your frustrations, and simply to build community with people who understand your particular job. 
  • Build relationships up and down the org chart.  Try having conversations with others in your organization simply to learn and share, rather than only when you have a specific need or concern.  Building better relationships organization wide (and clergy, that means with your diocesan staff) builds resilience for working together better in the next round of chaos.
  • Build relationships in your community.  Whatever your sector, how can you build partnerships with other groups in your city?  Can your team join a group working to support public schools? Or building a neighborhood park?  Or driving for Meals on Wheels?  Or advocating for a needed change?  When you do that, begin building connections with the other teams, groups and companies involved with these projects.

Ensure Easy Wins

As your team moves from full pandemic mode into the next normal, a great leader will ensure that your team has some early, easy wins.  It’s been an exhausting year, and none of us feel confident about the future.  So what are some small easy wins that your team can tackle and celebrate soon?  Celebrate the qualities of your team members that contributed to this win.  Help them embrace their value to your mission.  Affirm their accomplishments.

Model and Expect Deep Down Time

2020 has been exhausting.  So many of us have worked through our reserves and are nearing the breaking point.  To be a good leader in 2021, you must set down work and take some real time for rest, reflection and recreation.  You may have had your heart set on that African safari, or walking the Camino or whatever plans you made.  Set those hopes down and get a 2 week staycation on your calendar this quarter!  Your body, your creativity, your soul NEEDS down time–even if it isn’t in some exotic local.  Book the time, take the time, talk about the time.  Model to your team that sufficient rest is an important part of being prepared for work. 

Your team is likely at least as exhausted as you are.  A great leader moving into 2021 will advocate for extra paid time off for their exhausted staff.  How can you get more paid time off for your staff?  Can you close your offices for a week or two?  Can you plan staggered vacations where the staff covers for each colleague cycling through 2 weeks of extra time off during the first quarter?  Some leaders have decreed Wednesdays email free so no one in the office is expected to write, read or return emails one day a week.  How can you offer, model and expect deep down time in 2021?

Be a Flexible Entrepreneur

A great leader in 2021 will embrace new ideas and encourage trying new things.  I recently spoke with The Rev’d Canon Janet Waggoner, chair of the Task Force on Church Planting and Redevelopment for The Episcopal Church.  She says for church leadership, “what will separate the sheep from the goats is entrepreneurialism and flexibility.”  The same can be said for leaders in other institutions and teams.  Those who are able to thrive post-pandemic will be the ones who continue to be supple and flexible in their thinking and entrepreneurial in their practice.  

Support and Encourage Skill Building

Professional Development is more important than ever.  So is making sure your team has the tools they need to get their job done.  During the first quarter of 2021 a great leader will sit down with each of their team to find out what they need –both in terms of training and also equipment — to be well-equipped for their job as the world begins to open up again in 2021.  Invest in building the skills of your team members, and ensure that they have the equipment, software and support they need to be agile and ready for new challenges in 2021.

Take Time for Reflection and Creativity

Great leaders in 2021 will be those who are able to step back from the tyranny of the urgent and take time for both reflection and creativity.  Encourage your staff to do this too by sharing a monthly or quarterly reflection tool.  This tool can be as simple as four emailed questions, “What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn? What do you need?”  Don’t forget to do this yourself, too.  Extroverted teams may want to engage these questions together.  

The coming season is going to require flexibility and creativity.  Good leaders will build up creativity muscles by taking art classes, joining a writing group, practicing improv, turning your backyard into an outdoor room, or whatever sparks your creativity.  

What Else?

What else will be important to leaders in the 2020s?  Leave a comment to share your thoughts.

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