Demographic shifts in the work force and changes in priorities among younger generations are driving new approaches to attracting, motivating, developing and retaining top talent. 

These changes present a significant challenge to a more seasoned generation of business owners and managers; those who were developed under and learned a different model of employer and employee expectations, career management and work-life balance values. Understanding what makes the younger generations tick and how to adapt organizational structures and cultures, management styles, and expectations are subjects about which much has been — and I suspect will continue to be — written.

The good news is there are some leadership traits that never go out of style and often the leadership lessons learned in our youth can serve us well at the helm of a business, division or department.

Do you remember the one kid among your neighborhood group of friends who was the leader? For me he was the one who introduced new kids to the rest of us, explained the rules of the game we were playing and saw that no one was left out.  We all trusted him because he had our backs whenever we messed up. 

None of the leadership lessons I’ve learned since has had as indelible an effect on me as the ones I learned growing up. Four in particular are traits that will serve today’s leaders well, regardless of the demographics of your employees.

Trust:  Do your team members trust you? Do they expect that you will stand up for them, without a doubt and whatever the situation? Only that kind of trust makes people feel empowered, gives them the courage to be innovative, to take risks and push themselves beyond their comfort zones. The boss who takes credit for others’ ideas or accomplishments, talks about one set of core values and culture, but behaves and makes decisions that reflect a much different set, does not earn and will not have his people’s trust.

Customers want to do business with a company and with people they trust. Proving that your business has earned the trust they place in you goes a long way in retaining past customers and employees, and in attracting the kind of people that will lead to continued success.

Having Integrity is essential to gaining the trust of your clients.

Empathy: Do you treat your team members as human beings and not just as workers? Did you notice the look of anxiety on the face of one of your people as he walked into work this morning, or did you miss it because you were too busy fretting about the big job you’re working on or a looming deadline? Knowing what challenges, issues and goals your people are facing gives you powerful insight into their state of mind, focus (or lack thereof) and what is likely to motivate them. In my experience employees remember bonuses, raises, awards and accolades for a period of time, but an empathetic approach to a challenging personal issue sticks with them for life.

Emotional Intelligence is widely recognized as a leadership quality, but I believe it is just as important to be transparent with your emotions. We should rejoice in our success and show concern about our setbacks. What’s wrong with laughing and crying at the highs and lows of our colleague’s lives? 

We are human beings and knowing that our bosses care for us fulfills a basic human need.

Mentorship: No matter how talented we are, we crave the guiding hand; the mentor who will teach us the rules of the game. Many successful professional sports coaches recognize that there is never a great player who doesn’t want to be coached.  The same holds true for work. I would not have accomplished the things I did had my first boss not nudged and guided me in the right direction. Mentorship is especially critical when people are unsure about what the future holds for them or their organization.

Everybody needs a good reliable sounding board, a second opinion, and sometimes — emotional support.

Employee mentoring programs are designed with the future in mind and enable business owners to look at the skills a prospective employee has currently, as well as the skills that he or she is able to develop over time. Companies that have implemented effective employee mentoring programs recognize the talents their staff possesses and know that the necessary leadership skills will be developed. As a result they are often able to successfully promote from within, rather than focusing on hiring employees only to fill a specific position.

Integrity:  Being a person of your word provides the right example for employees who look to you for guidance on the proper way to conduct themselves. This core value is related to trust and implies that we do what we say we will do, are always within the law, and are consistent in our dealings with people and issues.

When a business owner understands the qualities of integrity, it filters down through all levels in the organization.

When a small business instills a deep-seated theme of integrity within its strategies and policies, it will be evident to its customers, associates and partners.

Regardless of our age, or the demographics and priorities of those with whom we work, these basic characteristics of effective leaders have withstood the test of time and will continue to serve as the foundation for those being developed today. After all, some leadership traits never go out of style.

Tom Cline has a 28-year background in sales, marketing, and operations. He is currently a Business Development Advisor for Violand Management Associates (VMA) where he works closely with business owners and their key management staff as both a business consultant and an executive coach. To learn more about VMA’s services and programs visit or call (330)966-0700.