the future of leadership
Engage Magazine Fall 2020 General Interest

Three Essential Attributes of Tomorrow’s Leaders

by Matthew Neeley, President and CEO, Hillcrest

Matthew Neeley, HillcrestIn my role as a Facilitator for LeadingAge California’s EMERGE Leadership Development Program, I’ve become acquainted with over 200 emerging leaders within our field over the past decade.

These are bright and strong leaders with great potential. During the year-long EMERGE experience, these fellows grow exponentially and undergo a personal transformation that prepares them to contribute to their organizations and the field with greater personal strength and commitment. From lessons learned this past decade, I have written this article to highlight three important attributes that I believe are and will be essential for tomorrow’s leaders, which includes each of us.


The word of the year for 2020 is ambiguity. In this world of increasing unknowns, we see fear and concern in the eyes of those around us. We sometimes see it in ourselves. Successful leaders must develop the ability to hush their own fears in periods of distress and look outside themselves to help others do the same.

Leaders who are steady in ambiguity evaluate weighty matters without being overcome by worry or concern. They emit a sense of security and resolve that is palpable in moments of uncertainty. They don’t minimize the discomforts that may be present, but they are not immobilized by them. They manage their reactions and bring a sense of calmness to chaos. They are comfortable with the reality that some situations and some answers will just take time to unfold. They see worry as an inhibitor to creativity and as a distractor to effectiveness. In their personal example, these leaders successfully model the way for others to follow.

This inner strength often unveils itself in the crucibles of life. As we successfully pass through them, we see ourselves differently — we become more resilient, confident, and steady in ambiguity.

Ponder This: How do my reactions affect others in moments of ambiguity or distress? Whom do I seek out when confronted with a major challenge? What is it about that person that gives me confidence to move forward in spite of uncertainties? How can I emulate this strength to those around me?


We each make decisions based on what we believe will lead to our greatest happiness, whether immediate or in the future. Those who have clarified their values and live in accordance with them are better able to make good decisions in difficult circumstances.

True story: I once went to Home Depot to purchase nine knobs for a cabinet we had refinished. After paying for the knobs, I was given the bag of knobs and a receipt. As I walked away, I glanced at the receipt which showed I’d paid for only eight knobs. I turned around and let the cashier know and ask that she charge me for the last knob. No big deal. But the man next in line was astonished and said, “Dude, you care that much about Home Depot?” I turned to him and said, “No, I care that much about my honesty” and gave him a smile. A big smile crossed his face; he nodded and said approvingly, “Duuuude.” He understood.

How much is our integrity worth? Would we sell it for a knob? A thousand dollars? How about a million? Successful leaders will be those who understand and clarify their values and commit themselves to live by them — especially in hard times. There are certain questions we can answer once in our lives and never have to revisit them again. Successful leaders are grounded in their values.

Ponder This: What are your values? Write them on a piece of paper and ponder on them over time, refining them where necessary. Post them in a place where you can see them. Make decisions in advance that will guide your future actions? Hold on to your values and hold yourself accountable to them.


As we grow in scope and responsibility, we are given organizational authority. How we exercise that authority matters not only to others, but to our own future success.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen unwise leaders wield organizational authority by exercising power and dominion over others. They hover over subordinates and put pressure on peers to obtain some desired short-term result. Often they obtain the short-term objective, but do so at the expense of a more valuable long-term relationship on which they must depend for their future success.

Having a short-term view of relationships costs individuals and organizations in both good will and productivity. Nurturing a focus on long-term relationships will lead to teamwork and cooperation, smoother processes and happier teams.

Leaders that are focused on long-term relationships are mindful every day and in every interaction how others feel around them. They speak the truth and focus on trust, which can only be built through consistent trustworthy behavior over time. In those moments when leaders make mistakes, they model humility by being willing to apologize and mend the fences they may have broken. By focusing on long-term relationships, successful leaders clear the path to a better future for themselves and others.

Ponder This: How do people feel when they are around me? Are my behaviors trust-building? How can I better show others that I value them? Are there any fences that need mending? What is the next step to make things better? We all must start where we are and take the next step.