Twenty-one Critical Traits for the 21st Century

First published 10/24/2010
Amended 3/9/2011

Teaching two graduate leadership courses since 2003 (including one called Creativity, Change, and the 21st Century Leader), consulting to corporate leadership for longer than that, and being part of corporate leadership for even longer than that, I have reached a couple of conclusions I’d like to share.

One is that leadership exists on three levels: global, organizational, and personal. Leadership is more than just leading others; it’s very much about leading oneself. In fact, if you cannot think about self-leadership, you cannot think about organizational or global leadership. Leadership starts on the personal level.

The other is that, since every successful leader exhibits common traits, and all leadership starts on the personal level, then to navigate the 21st century with any degree of success – a century which already has established itself as the most challenging ever – one must develop these traits. Some of them may not have been so critical last century, but try getting through this one without them.

By the way, you can develop every one of these. They’re not in your DNA, over which you have no control (although that, too, will change this century); this is about objectively self-examining, honestly dealing with what you find, and earnestly working to build these traits. In sports it’s called “working on your game.”

So, from a personal and career point of view, here’s my list of 21 critical traits for the 21st century. To be successful, competitive, and – ultimately – happy in the 21st century, it is essential for you to become:


  1. Multi-talented – not limited to one specialty. The days of succeeding by being good at one thing only are over. That is not to say that you should be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. The real opposite of that is not a master of no trades. It’s a jack-of many-trades-master-of one. Or a couple. So get good at a lot of things and really good at (at least) one.
  2. Determined, persistent, stubborn, and committed. As opportunities increase so do challenges. You’ll need to learn how not to give up, to see things through.
  3. Purpose-driven – on a personal mission. How sad it is that so many people wake up each morning and don’t know why. You need a reason, and the closer it’s associated with something bigger than yourself, the more likely you will have a meaningful career.
  4. Altruistic – pledged to the larger organization, a larger cause. If your purpose is only you or your family, you’re falling short. You need a cause outside yourself toward which you work.
  5. Decisive – able to call on resources to make crisp decisions. This is critical thinking, nothing less, but it doesn’t mean bullheadedness (“often wrong but never uncertain”). It means confidence in your decision-making process and willingness to change or alter when needed.
  6. Curious – continuously interested in and engaged with what’s around you. “Curiosity,” said Akio Morita, Sony’s founder, “is the key to creativity.” And
  7. Creative – able to see new things, think new thoughts. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Albert Einstein, and this is more true now than when he said it. More new ideas, discoveries, inventions, and fundamental changes have emerged in the first decade of this century than in every century before it – combined. Unwillingness or inability to grasp, accept, and act upon newness is a recipe for failure.
  1. Empathetic – able to see others’ situations. A feeling of kinship with the human race. We are increasingly intertwined, and so are our problems and opportunities. This is more relevant to career development than ever before.
  1. Democratic in character structure – fair and open. Stop thinking you have – or can come up with – all the answers. You cannot, nor can anyone any more. Try coming up with the right questions and finding the people who can answer them. Get your ego out of this.
  1. Willing to think – not afraid of mental exercise. Less and less will be handed to you; you’ll have to sort things out. Einstein also said, “We think we are thinking, when all we are doing is rearranging our prejudices.”
  1. Planned and prepared – ready for what comes. You must be proactive in thought and action.
  1. Broadly educated and keenly aware – 360°.Narrow training will work against you. A broad-based liberal arts education wrapped around a specialty (major) is how you will succeed.
  1. Comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and change.You’re going to see an awful lot of it, so get used to it. That’s not a threat; it’s an opportunity.
  1. Accountable to yourself– and then to others. It doesn’t work the other way.
  1. A team leader– but understanding “shared leadership.” One of the great leadership concepts of the last couple of decades is that leadership can – and should be – a shared, cooperative, collaborative experience.
  1. The owner of a clear, efficient perception of reality – and a strong, comfortable relationship with it.Your big challenge is: what’s real? It is not easy to be objective, but we have no choice.
  1. Problem centered outside oneself.Thinking holistically, seeing the big picture.
  1. Autonomous and independent.You want and need the freedom to effectuate your own ideas. If the place you work isn’t built that way, look elsewhere.
  1. Wildly optimistic.It’s too easy to see the glass as half empty, but pessimists never solved a problem, saw an opportunity, invented anything, or moved themselves and humanity forward.
  1. Someone with a non-hostile sense of humor – playfully engaged with the world. You should be having fun.

Amendment … and here’s number 21 – along with more inductive thinking …

  1. Inductive.Right-brainers will understand the 21st century. Left-brainers might not. The pace and scope of 21st century change has defined it as the “Right-Brain Century.” The fact is, though, we have been educated in left-brain ways, and we continue to educate in left-brain ways; we organize our companies, schools, hospitals, and communities in left-brain ways; we motivate, incentivize, and reward in left-brain ways; and – horror – we use left-brain arguments to try to justify left-brain thinking in a right-brain world. Only the inductive thinker who says “What’s going on here?” will figure out what’s actually going on here. Why? Because nobody’s handing out road maps any more. Many of you reading this will see well past the mid-point of this century. This is how you’ll do it: thinking creatively and inductively along with logically and deductively.

In his landmark book, Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

We will define our successes not by what we do for a living but by how we think about our lives.

How will we do this? By reading (it is still the mental stimulus which carries the highest impact), unplugging (the limitless Internet, when misused, limits out thinking) learning another language (or two), reaching past ourselves – out of our comfort zones, and by challenging ourselves with both real world issues and pastimes (puzzles, riddles, paradoxes, and so forth).

These initiatives are all proactive, leaving passivity behind. They are “musts.”

…and here’s the inductive thought…

These 21 critical 21st century traits nicely and neatly align themselves in four categories, giving us a convenient, clearly-focused approach to self-development.

These four classifications are: 1) Dimension, 2) Resolve, 3) Vectors, and 4) Creative Dissatisfaction.

Here’s the breakdown:


  1. Dimension – broad and deep: multi-talented; broadly educated and keenly aware.
  2. Resolve: determined, persistent, stubborn, and committed; purpose-driven; decisive; planned and prepared; accountable to yourself; autonomous and independent.
  3. Vectors – outward, inward, upward, and forward: altruistic; empathetic; democratic in character structure; a team leader; wildly optimistic; problem centered outside yourself; the owner of a clear, efficient perception of reality.
  4. Creative dissatisfaction: curious; creative; willing to think; comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and change

These 21 traits – in their four categories – are more than just “nice to have. ”They’re critical. And if the first decade of this century has not validated that, then the next nine decades are going to be awfully difficult.