Cast your mind back to the second half of the 20th century, if you will. Leadership, and management, had a distinctly one-dimensional flavour: this is what we’re doing, do as I say.

Leaders were mostly men, and there existed in many an organisation a culture where in order to be a good leader, you had to be tough, uncompromising, and a bit of a hard arse. Often, there was an (un)healthy dose of fear mixed into this environment. Don’t piss off the boss; don’t even question him. Don’t make a mistake, lest you have to face the consequences; and that would never end well. Conversations between leaders and their charges were often one-way, and communication could be harsh, aggressive, and laced with plenty of swearing.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and it’s a whole (dare I say brave) new world. As a society, we have a growing awareness of the mental health challenges that many of us deal with, and the impact on them by the culture and practices within the workplace. We get that it is no longer acceptable to talk to people in an aggressive manner; that all people, no matter what their station, deserve respect and recognition.

We understand that people are different, and getting the best out of one employee may require a totally different approach to getting the best out of a second. And we look around us and see organisations filled with the next generation, the Gen Zs and Millennials, a cohort who have completely different expectations and demands from their working experience, as they navigate their way through the early part of their careers.

Add into that shiny new mix the even greater challenges of doing business, from an increasingly complex world and competition that pushes and challenges us. It is more vital than ever that our leadership and culture are strong and healthy (and appropriate!), to allow us to thrive as businesses, and to attract, engage and retain the best talent available.

What does leadership in the 21st century look like? What do we need to do differently? There are many elements that we could delve into, from life/work balance, to recognising and calling out (usually unconscious) biases in the workplace, to understanding the different leadership styles required in different situations and with different people. However, there are 3 qualities that underpin leadership and culture, qualities that 50 years ago would have been laughed off as a sign of weakness, without which your organisation is nothing more than a house of cards, waiting to crumble: trust, empathy and vulnerability.


It goes without saying, if there is no trust in our organisation, if people don’t trust each other, if a leader and employee lack trust in their relationship, if the executive team or different departments don’t trust each other, then we’re fighting a losing battle. Suspicion is rife, gossip and rumour abound, people start to worry about their own survival rather than focusing on the success of the organisation, cliques and alliances are formed, all of which are toxic to culture, destroy employee engagement and foster selfishness instead of teamwork.

Trust takes time to build, and can be lost in an instant. Building trust often requires an active decision, especially in an environment that has lacked trust in the past. As always, trust needs to come from the top, from the senior leaders. When the leaders start to trust each other, and their teams, it filters through the organisation, and can transform workplaces. At Full Potential, we developed the Triangle of Trust™ as the model for building and embedding trust in the organisation. If you’re interested to know more, don’t hesitate to contact us.


Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. It is different from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone.

As a leader, if I can understand someone’s experience from their perspective, be they a direct report, a colleague, or even my own manager, it gives me an appreciation of what they are going through. I am then in a position to help them and support them. The other person feels understood, listened to and valued. The combination improves performance, builds engagement, increases productivity…and creates a powerful culture of care and inclusion.


Imagine talking to leaders back in the 1960s and 70s about the need for leaders to be vulnerable! Even today, there are many leaders who would scoff at such a notion, but hear me out…

If we want our team members or colleagues to put their hand up when they’ve made a mistake; to let us know when they don’t understand something; to confide in us when they are struggling; then they are much more likely to do so if they see us doing so. Be the change you want to see, as the old saying goes. If I don’t admit to my mistake, it’s unlikely my team member will. Conversely, if I put my hand up to my team and say ‘hey, this one’s on me, I stuffed up. I’m sorry. But hey, we all make mistakes, and it’s ok when we do’*, our team members now have the permission, and the knowledge and feeling of safety, to do the same.

*In fact, we want our team members to make mistakes from time to time, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Similarly, if we want our colleague to come to us when they don’t understand something or are struggling with a piece of work, they are much more likely to do so when they have seen us put our hand up and say to them, or others, ’I need some help here, I’m having some trouble’.

Being vulnerable allows people to be human, talented yet imperfect…themselves. And when people are allowed to be themselves, encouraged to be themselves, celebrated for being themselves, they are engaged, they are happier, and they are more productive.

Trust, empathy and vulnerability: 3 qualities that only a few decades ago were not in the conversation, let alone the conversation, and are now the essential building blocks for strong, effective leadership, and successful, healthy organisations.