The roles of the modern, responsive leader

 What is the role of the modern leader – the leader who is responsible and responsive, and can steer an organisation safely through a world that is constantly changing?

The requirements for both management and organisations have evolved continuously, correlating with advancements in psychology, the arts, music, technology, the political landscape, and society.

It’s hard to put a finger on a specific time marking the change, but the driver and the cause of the development is often said to be technological advancement. The propagation of the internet is one of the clearest signs of this change, since it has made global communication and access to knowledge easy.

In general, the speed of change is constantly increasing, and is called the ‘change of change’. In fact, we have never seen anything like it: We are looking into a future with constant change. As management expert Gary Hamel phrases it: ‘More changes, rapid changes, and pivotal changes’ in technology, information, and structures.

This calls for leaders who are capable of listening and responding correspondingly:

Listening to external global trends, to the users’ needs and expectations, and to the employees’ needs and expectations.

Responding by experimenting, by delegating, by empowering, and by focusing on problem solving.

Over the past few years, I’ve gathered cases from successful and courageous leaders, who have driven a transformational paradigm shift towards this form of modern leadership.

All these leaders have fulfilled the following roles:

Be a coach and a mentor
You must master both coaching and mentoring, and apply it with situational leadership both towards the individual employees and towards the team as an entity. One of the guiding principles for leadership is ‘people first’: The responsive leader cares about the development and wellbeing of the employees and of the team, and invests time in helping each employee be successful, and be the best version of themselves. This means frequent conversations and sparring, open questions, and at times also hints, direction, and advice. As coach and mentor, the leader creates trust, safety, and confidentiality, and is ambitious on behalf of the employee.

A key to being a good coach and mentor is mastering emotional intelligence (EQ), specifically the ability to identify and handle your own and other people’s feelings. It’s all about your empathy and sympathy, and about striving to understand both your mentee, and yourself. You’ll have an easier time helping other people if you understand yourself.

Be an entrepreneur
You must think and act as an internal entrepreneur, and see yourself as CEO of your team or department. The entrepreneurs I’ve worked with have all had a balanced approach to working on or in the business. An entrepreneur is used to switching between working on the business and working in the business.

The most successful leaders I’ve met are the ones that also act like business relationship managers or key account managers, focusing on the dynamics between the delivering team and the receiving team.

Master the white space
You must master white space management: management of the area between the boxes in an organisational chart, where every often no one is in charge, rules are vague, and budget is non-existent. Those responsive leaders who master white space are those that see the blind spots of the organisation, and strive to close the gap by investigating, analysing, suggesting an approach, and facilitating a decision on it.

Be a gardener of your ecosystem
You must be a gardener of the ecosystem around you, such that the dynamics of a strengths-based leadership team is nurtured, and that dialogue, engagement, and access to expertise are facilitated.

You have an important role when it comes to managing collaboration between all the leaders and key influencers, especially horizontally in the organisation. This is one of the aspects of the so-called social business, namely facilitation of the health of the leadership ecosystem between the leaders.

Compared to ‘leading downwards’ to your teams and ‘leading upwards’ to your leader, ‘leading horizontally’ is tougher and a neglected discipline, especially in organisations who have not transformed away from hierarchies.

The responsiveness and balance between old-school and new-school leadership
The modern leader is responsive with their own leadership style, that is, she or he knows when to be old-school, firm, and controlling, and when to be new-school, open, and empowering. There is often a one to five ratio between these approaches.

Clearly this paradigm shift is emerging, and I foresee many leaders will initiate the transformation in the years to come. I encourage you to investigate how it fits your world – and your employees.


Erik Korsvik Østergaard (b. 1973) is partner in Bloch&Østergaard, which he founded in 2013. He holds a degree as Master of Science (M.Sc.) from the Technical University of Copenhagen with a thesis in chaos mathematics, and has an EBA in cross-cultural project management.

Erik has worked with leadership, change management, and organisational transformation in for over 15 years as a manager, project manager, and consultant – and has a burning passion for leadership and engagement. In addition, he acts as mentor, speaker, and motivator. He is a regular guest lecturer at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and is also a keen jazz pianist, song writer, and singer.