What Leadership Needs To Look Like In 2035

David Rock
4 min readApr 9, 2021
Leaders can set themselves apart, and ahead, by building these skills. | Photo: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

Leadership needs a grand commitment

General Motors (GM), a Fast Company Most Innovative Company, recently announced it will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035. The move sparked lots of discussion, largely positive, and other industries — i.e. healthcare — declared they “need their own Mary Barra,” a reference to the GM CEO and her leadership.

Barra and GM’s future vision got us thinking, then: what should leadership look like in 2035? What’s the grand commitment or vision for leaders 14 years from now? We’d encourage leaders to begin focusing on these now, as they will only become more important in the next few years.

Leverage the moment to do big things

  • The science says: We’ve been popularizing “moon shots” — often in the context of Google — for north of a decade now, but many approaches to leadership have stayed depressingly similar. Take a leadership moon shot. Kill performance appraisals. Take a new approach to racial bias training. Create some discomfort on your team (it helps us learn better). Blow stuff up. The energy around how different this moment is will eventually fade. If you don’t capture it now, it’s easy to revert back to the old ways of doing things.
  • What to do right now: Think of something in your organization that needs to be changed — a process, an approach to product, a way of dealing with people. Bring together people from different areas of the company, provide them autonomy in reaching solutions, and let them get after it. See what happens. It might not be your preferred, controlled way of getting stuff done, but it will open you up to new possibilities as a leader.

Care about humans at levels you never imagined

  • The science says: The SCARF Model — Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — are the five factors that help leaders maximize engagement and drive lasting performance when they help their team members meet one another’s needs. This is how you drive motivation through science.
  • What to do right now: Take one or two of the letters and experiment. Give a team newfound autonomy over a rollout. Bring the organization together and discuss fairness: definitions of, how it plays out in the organization, and areas where people are seeing less fairness. Be transparent and focus on the five factors; it takes time, but your employees will feel more connected to the brand than ever before.

Embrace hybrid work and autonomy

  • The science says: Hybrid work is a challenge, largely because of distance and similarity biases, but it can be achieved. And the reality is: it has to be achieved. Many employees have grown comfortable in “The New Normal,” and others won’t want to return five days a week to a close-proximity, urban core office. That’s all shifted. Having a dispersed, mixed-model workforce also allows you to showcase autonomy as a leader.
  • What to do right now: Check in with your people on how they’re feeling and doing and where their challenges lie (child care, elder care, time worked, etc.) Make individualized plans to help employees get the most out of hybrid work.

The virtual is the reality

  • The science says: Virtual work can be achieved, and it’s often cheaper and more productive. (Executives like both those things.) But there needs to be an embrace that everything is going virtual, including sales and product, over the next 10–15 years. Virtual is reality.
  • What to do right now: Free up some time and shake the “Zoom fatigue” shackles by holding “speedy meetings,” where 30- and 60-minute meetings get turned into 25 and 50 minutes. Consider moving to a 9/80 schedule with a three-day weekend every other week, to reward people’s new tendency to work longer hours with more periods of rest.

Follow the science, experiment, and follow the data

  • The science says: So many organizations are claiming to be data-driven. Most haven’t actually hit the mark yet. Being data-driven means being committed to testing and adjusting, just like a scientist would.
  • What to do right now: Get going with some low-level experiments. A/B test some of your internal email campaigns. Send one group in-office and keep one group virtual and see how people perform differently. Institute one approach to recognition and team belonging with one team, and try a different approach with another team. See what the results tell you. If you’re focused on data and experimentation at the internal cultural level, it will permeate and your external, in-market efforts become more data-driven as well.

Bottom line

The best leaders aren’t the people with the best numbers. They’re the people who constantly read and react to what their teams need at the time. Continued learning, continued talking with the team, and continued self-awareness and development are the cornerstones to being a strong leader, be it 2021 or 2035.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.



David Rock

Author, consultant, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, board member of the BlueSchool