Six Simple Guidelines for 21st Century Leaders

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. One of their questions was: what are the simplest rules you offer to the leaders you interact and work with. I have a hard time thinking of it in terms of rules, but six simple clear guidelines emerged pretty readily:

  1. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Simple, but we are not always aware of where and when our words and actions are out of alignment. In the perspective of Worldview Awareness, this is the idea of Taking Whole or interconnectedness. In this situation, our words are interconnected (or not) with our actions. Coaching, mentoring, peer support or simply the willingness to receive reflections from others provides helpful guidance and reflections for you to learn what is out of alignment and sense into how to bring it back into alignment. But if you don’t want to know the answer, even if you ask the question, people will know it and tell you what you want to hear rather than what helps you most.
  1. Learn to listen.  Fully, completely, without judgment and without filling in the blanks  as the other person begins.  Too often we think we already know what the other person is going to say or where they are headed.  Often, we are wrong and have shut down the opportunity to find out what the other person wanted to share with us and that opportunity may never come around again. When we do not fully listen, the other person will also tune out or become frustrated and we are left with little of value, cross communication and unresolved issues. When we fully tune into another person or a group, the space is enriched, truth shows up, generative space is created, people are heard, validated and seen. A couple of favourite expressions about listening: “When we change the quality of the listening, we change the quality of the conversation.” “When we truly listen, we can listen another person into being.” It goes a long way toward creating new levels of consciousness in a team, organization or initiative.
  1. Ask good questions.  All the time. Ask more questions than the number of answers you give. A good question evokes thoughtful responses, helps you understand the situation more fully and helps others you are with find their own way. There is a craft and an art to framing questions. A simple way to begin is to imagine the responses that a question will evoke: yes/no responses, short answers or thoughtful responses that will have the person reflecting on their own rather than waiting for you to give them the answer. Also, imagine how you are asking the questions, the energy that makes it an inquiry and not an inquisition. Learning to craft good questions takes practice, and it is a practice well worth developing.
  1. Bring genuine curiosity and compassion to every conversation. Curiosity and judgment cannot exist in the same space. Defensiveness doesn’t sit very well in a curious space either. Neither does dismissiveness. When you notice yourself in a place of judging someone else or yourself, you find yourself defensive or dismissive, make a mental note to switch to curiousity. And then do it. Become curious about the other person, the situation or your own responses. And invite yourself into compassion too – for yourself as well as the other person. It creates a space for people to show up in the fullness of their humanity, a generative space where ideas and opportunities flow. It creates an environment “safe enough” for people to risk sharing ideas and sharing passion for what they care about.


  1. Humility is an asset, more than that, a way of being. You don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. Especially not in today’s complex world. And oftentimes, leaders are removed from the points of intersection between the organization, its customers, stakeholders or the problems or issues that emerge. Twenty-first century leadership asks us to draw on the wisdom, knowledge and experience – the collective intelligence of a team, group or organization to solve problems, take risks and try new things. Finding the place of humility within you will enable you to listen more fully and access the brilliance in others in the most remarkable of ways.
  1. Set a few simple guidelines and get out of the way.  The more you try to control a situation, the more you shut down the potential for better things to happen, the more you send the message to other people you do not trust them to offer good solutions or strategies or to get the job done. Then the less they will demonstrate their own leadership, autonomy and sense of responsibility.  Trust yourself, trust your people and trust the power of the guidelines you set – preferably determined with the people most able to get results, closest to the situation.  Let people do what they are capable of and support them in the process.

The 21st Century is calling us as leaders  to build connectedness in a world of highly divergent cultures, experiences and perspectives, to learn and work together more effectively. Often, less is more.



12 thoughts on “Six Simple Guidelines for 21st Century Leaders

  1. I have noticed myself for years trying to finish other peoples sentences. It is actually something that I recognize I don’t like about myself. When I catch myself now, I will stop and say “sorry, I shouldn’t guess, please go on.” It really doesn’t feel good when you steal someone’s power like that. Great article Kathy! Thanks.

    • Thanks Brenda. One thing I have become more aware of is when you are in the middle of trying to share something with someone and they ask questions that take you in a completely different direction, because they have their own agenda, and you lose the essence of what it was you wanted to share. I try not to be that person 🙂

  2. Thanks for this Kathy. So true.
    Listening is key. This takes courage. Reminds me of Marc Nepo’s quote,” to listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed” and as Parker Palmer says, “hear someone into speech”

    You are doing important work

    Take care,

    • Dear Doug, what a lovely surprise to read your note here; and thank you for your kind words. I just finished reading one of Marc Nepo’s books and loved his courageous writing. It is important work and it still needs all of us – more than ever now.

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  6. Kathy, you are a trail blazer and this article was just what I needed today. Sometimes my listening is hijacked and we lose that magic of presence and connection. Thank you too Brenda, for reminding me that I am fully capable to ” catch myself,” apologize and move on with deeper listening. As I write this, I am reminded of the importance of breathing, space, and embracing the gifts of the unexpected in conversations. Vulnerability pops up. What triggered my listening hijack? One for the journal:-) Grateful for this post.

    • Thanks Shelley, for your kind words and to help people think more deeply about listening practices – how simple it can be to bring ourselves back when our attention has wandered.

  7. Spot on Kathy! Oh how I wish I had this awareness several years ago when I was leading the Agency I ran. I’m definitely not there yet, but getting better at catching myself and shifting back into curiosity.

    • I find it fascinating to pull out blog posts written years ago to see the timelessness of them. Good leadership and change management practices have been around for decades and even centuries yet we continue to lose our way. We are incorporating this into the new book – We Are Never Going Back: From Disruption to Resilience.

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