Leadership is Changing—Here’s Why That’s Good News For Women

DEIDiversity & CultureChief Executive OfficersAssessment and Benchmarking
min Article
May 16, 2023
6 min
DEIDiversity & CultureChief Executive OfficersAssessment and Benchmarking
Executive Summary
We are living through the beginnings of a leadership revolution that could dramatically accelerate the closure of the gender gap in organizations globally.


We are in the midst of a leadership revolution—a unique moment in history when the old definitions of success and what it takes to lead are fundamentally shifting.

The seeds of this change were planted nearly a decade ago as issues like digital transformation and sustainability began to rewrite the rules of business. Yet, we also know that the seismic events of the global pandemic accelerated these shifts, fueling a widespread recognition that there is a better way to manage our world.

So, as the world shifts on its axis, what exactly does it now mean to be a great leader? Which leadership skills are now in highest demand? And what implications does this have for the diversity of executive teams at leading organizations around the world?

To find answers, we analyzed thousands of role specifications (the documents we create with clients when they’re looking for their next executive) as well as psychometric data from global leadership interviews.

We found clear evidence that we are living through the beginnings of a leadership revolution that could dramatically accelerate the closure of the gender gap in organizations around the world.

Here’s how.


Which leadership skills are in most demand today?

When companies used to look for their CxO, their list of requirements firmly centered on finding leaders with strong technical skills and solid track record of successfully managing financial resources.

But today’s world is a much more complex world, as events like Covid-19, and issues like sustainability and digital disruption, force every business to rethink their business models, their operations, and yes, their leaders.

As our colleague Dee Fitzgerald explains: “We are seeing a move away from a world that was much more tangible to a world that’s much less certain, where there is a need for greater agility. It is no longer about managers delegating and instructing. It’s about leaders who can create purpose and meaning for others. It’s less about ‘me’ and more about what I can do to include my broader stakeholder group—my employees, my communities, my customers.”

We see leadership evolving across four key domains: thinking, delivering, leading, and influencing.




It used to be that leaders were prized for their intellect and the accurate analysis of the situation in front of them. Today, that is table stakes. Increasingly, organizations want their leaders to be innovative, forward thinking, curious, and willing to disrupt the status quo (even when the status quo is highly lucrative). It’s about anticipating the needs of the future and understanding the organization in full technicolor. It’s about being able to navigate the complex and multidimensional ecosystems within which organizations operate, a capability we refer to as “systems thinking.” It requires stepping beyond the here and now to connect the dots and identify patterns to look at the whole system rather than the sum of the parts.


This particular domain, which refers to executing and getting results, used to be about “command and control, being on top of the data, giving clear direction to others, and making sure everything is done exactly the way you want it to be done. It then shifted to a more delegative environment with clear measurements or KPIs to monitor the performance of the team. But today, “delivering” is about being able to adapt in the absence of certainty. Instead of counting the widgets, delivering refers to being agile and comfortable with a world in flux.


Again, we’ve largely moved from a more militaristic approach to leadership, taking charge and directing, to a more engaging, motivating, and collaborative style that enables and empowers. Today’s leaders seek to find overarching meaning and purpose for their people, giving them something to connect to. It is a less transactional and more purpose-driven and inspiring way of engaging.


Finally, the domain of influencing used to emphasize the relational aspects of networking in order to build connections, knowledge and get the job done. Today, having influence as a leader refers less to your own journey and more about building an inclusive community, leveraging your EQ and empathy. It’s about drawing out and amplifying the voices that are different and getting to a more innovative answer. And it is one of the reasons why we are seeing such a demand for diversity on boards right now.


This isn’t just theory. When RRA analyzed the position specifications that our clients have us craft to explain the specific skills they are looking for in their next executive, we found that mentions of terms related to systems thinking, adaptability, being purpose-driven, and inclusive leadership traits increased significantly between the two time periods we studied: 2002–2006 and 2018–2021.

For example, terms relating to multi-level systems thinking more than doubled (up 122%) over the time periods we measured. Meanwhile, terms relating to being adaptive to change are up 88%--a clear indication of how resilience is an increasingly important concept in leadership (particularly as the world becomes more complex and fast changing and the demands and pressures stakeholders put on leaders personally grow higher than ever.)

Terms related to leading in a purpose-driven way and influencing in an inclusive manner are up 94% and 48% respectively. Two specific concepts spike within these categories: developing others and humility. To be successful leaders must be focused on developing those around them. Doing this accrues value in both the short-term and the long-term.

Interestingly, while the prevalence of “humility” as a requirement in our specs is up 600%, it still only shows up in 14% of specifications. This is a hugely important capability for leaders, but one must watch out for the difference between the ability to project humility, which leaders with good communication skills are often adept at doing, and being humble.



How does the shift in leadership affect the path to parity?

Leadership is changing—and the leadership skills that worked in the past won’t necessarily power your organization forward in a fast-moving world. The age of the infallible and stoic Captain piloting his ship towards profits (and historically it has almost always been a “he”) is fast coming to an end. And ultimately, this will open new opportunities for women.

Through RRA’s partnership with Hogan—generally regarded as the leading workplace personality tool, which uses a range of scales to understand the values, styles, preferences and even derailers of executives—we have some insights how the shift in leadership could impact the path to parity at the top of organizations.

When RRA compared men and women on Hogan scales that predict the most in-demand leadership traits, we found no meaningful difference between the sexes. In other words, the data is clear: when it comes to leading in 2023 and beyond, women possess just as much of what it takes to be successful.

Today, our research shows that women hold just 9% of CEO roles at the 100 largest companies in the S&P 500. Given that women have the exact skills that companies need in a fast-changing world, organizations that get serious about removing the systemic barriers and biases that stop women reaching to the highest echelons of business will not only gain access to a much wider executive talent pool—but diversify their top table faster, for the benefit of business, society, and the economy.

To find out more about how leadership is changing and how this creates new opportunities on the path to parity, read To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership are Rewriting the Rules for Success.