Leadership is a hot topic at the moment.  With the recent change of Prime Minister in the UK and ongoing leadership issues around the world, the style of a leader has never been a bigger discussion point.

Within the world of business, the theme of Leadership has been one of the foremost in its consistent popularity.  With the changes in both the UK and the rest of the world that are likely to be continuing for some time and the challenges that these changes will bring to business; staff will be looking with interest at how their organisation and their leaders will respond.

But whatever happens, “the show must go on”.  We are approaching a new decade.  We have already identified the importance of the 21st century leader to be able to move quickly and be ready to respond to change.

And when you consider the speed at which business change has taken place between 2000 and today, it’s astounding.  People were just getting their first mobile phones.  Remember those funny little flip-top things. And the idea of a built-in camera was, well, just silly fancy.  How much did we use the internet?  There was no Facebook, or Instagram, or social media of any kind.  We went to supermarkets to buy food and shops to buy clothes and other goods.  The internet has changed everything we do.  In 2007 Microsoft was the only tech company in the top 10 biggest companies in the world.  Now half of those 10 are tech companies and their technology gives them the advantage in terms of speed of growth. So what should leaders be looking at as we move towards 2020?

The top 10 trending issues are divided between the changes imposed by the outside world and the way in which the leader must adapt themself to embrace the new decade; and these can be roughly divided into three categories: 

  • Technology
  • Investment in Human Capital
  • Personal Identity.


The hot topics predicted to have the most significant impact on business in the next decade are Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been phenomenal and is likely to continue its rapid growth. In the entertainment world the use of AI to create realistic scenes for gaming has changed that world and those who have the skills to continue its growth will be much in demand.   Probably the biggest change that is affecting business is how machines are taking over tasks ranging from the everyday such as supermarket cashiering to inventory management.  The MailGuard[1] blog predicts that “anyone with a transaction-based job or business will be having a forced career change before the end of the decade.”  

Real Leaders[2] sees an advantage to companies in AI, in that they can gather valuable amounts of data about employees. These can range from determining employees’ leave patterns to analysing agent’s speech nuances during client calls – all of which can give you insights on how to help your employees perform their tasks better.”

Another rapidly developing aspect of technology is the arrival of 3D printing.  For businesses of all sizes that are involved in manufacturing, 3D printing is now sufficiently sophisticated to allow for customised product manufacture.  It’s still very expensive, but like all new technology, as it becomes more available, the cost will become more competitively accessible. Mark Cola, CEO of Sigma Labs said recently “I don’t think there’s a component made today that won’t somehow be touched by 3D printing in some fashion or another, whether directly or indirectly.”

Mailguard also refers to the increase in the use of mobile apps and suggests that “an upshot of the app economy is the question of who processes, and makes money, from online payments. The battle between banks, credit card companies, telecoms and software companies is going to be a major business story of the decade.”  This will affect every business on the globe and is something that the leader should keep on their radar.

Every business in the UK will have been affected last year by the change in data regulations and the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).  We don’t know what will happen after Brexit, but the protection of personal data is likely to remain and is an identified “hot topic” for the 2020s.  An increasing number of business decisions will be made based on data, so leaders will have to be vigilant in how they use this to track customers and consumers.  DDI World provides the interesting information that “by 2020, an estimated 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on earth,” which is 2.5 quintrillion bytes of data every single day.  Looking ahead, what comes after quintillion?  Apparently, it’s sextillion, septillion, all the way up to decillion.  And then? There’s going to have to be a new number, because it will surely be needed by 2030.

Investment in Human Capital

It may be true that robots and computers that are talking to each other speeds up business decisions and will strip layers of management from organisations.

But will the artificial brain ever totally replace the human brain?  We can’t say for certain right now, but for the next decade, humans will still be an integral part of every business at some level.

Investment in training of new skills in a good and loyal workforce can have the advantage of preparing them for technological changes that may happen in the future. By doing this over a long period of time, it will keep costs down and staff will see your investment in them, in turn maintaining their loyalty.

There are other programmes that can be introduced to retain good staff.  For example, the phrase ‘work/life balance’ is now part of the every-day business vocabulary.  Introducing programmes that offer better, more varied choices and opportunities is expected to be a major trend in the 2020’s.  A good example of this is Benefits Cloud, that offers deals on holidays, shopping items and goods, to name a few, that help staff to manage their home budgets.

Has email replaced the old ‘inter-departmental memo’ and the written report?  And does it work for or against staff? It’s just too easy.  A company I worked for banned staff from emailing their colleagues between floors because they couldn’t be bothered walking up the stairs to talk to each other.  Freeing people from the need to be vigilant about information 24/7, and the stress that comes from staff leaving mobile phones permanently  switched on, worrying that they might miss something important because they hadn’t read the email that arrived at 3am, is another aspect of work/life balance that will gain in importance, especially if it wasn’t that important in the first place. Stress and the affect it brings to working lives is a major trending topic.  And one that every leader should be aware of.

Personal Identity

This can be summed up as the combination of innate skills, knowledge, behaviour and traits that the leader brings to their business that can influence how they are regarded by staff, how much trust they gather and to what extent staff are prepared to follow them through the good and not so good times.

Leaders will find themselves leading a wider range of staff than ever before.  Into the workforce will come an influx of ‘Generation Z’ – those born in 1990 and after, in addition to the Baby Boomers and Generation X.  Inc.Com[3] sees the ability to manage these groups as a major trend in leadership.

It advises 2020 leaders that, “these age cohorts come from different cultural and economic backgrounds, and the management styles that work for one group may not work for another”.  It advises to “Focus on creating an environment where each group feels valued and motivated to give their best effort. Though you should strive to become more aware of the challenges facing each group, remember that each employee is an individual, not a statistic. Besides, most of the generational stereotypes you read online don’t have much, if any, basis in fact.”

Two topics on the trends list and a challenge for leadership will be to increase the number of women reaching senior positions, and to encourage diversity.  In 2019, only 24 of the top Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO.  Yet, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics a firm with 30% female leadership could expect to add 1% point to its net margins compared with firms with no female leaders.

And increasing the diversity of the workforce has shown to add profit to the bottom line.

Finally, all of the trend setters and influencers have one leadership topic in common – and it’s one that we have already commented on in a previous article:  the speed of change and the ability of the leader to be agile, outward looking, fast reacting and completely free of a “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset.

I have recently been re-reading a favourite novel, ‘Little Dorritt’ by Charles Dickens.  This is the novel in which he wrote one of his greatest inventions:  The Office of Circumlocution, an organisation into which everything had to go but from which nothing ever emerged.  Its unstated purpose was How Not to Do It.  The leader of the organisation was named Mr Tite Barnacle and Dickens described him thus: “He wound and wound folds of white cravat around his neck, as he wound folds and folds of tape and paper around the neck of the country.”  A wonderful timeless description of a leader who ensured that change could not happen.

The next decade will be yet another of massive change, most of it probably exciting, some of it uncomfortable.  The best leaders will make sure that they are aware of what is coming and use it to their best advantage.

[1] Mailguard.com.au 2019

[2] Real-Leaders.com 2018

[3] Inc.com/Morning Letter 2018