There is a book on leadership for every day of the year. And then there are the blogs, for every hour of every day. Leadership theory and best practice offer well-trodden paths for experts from many disciplines and present a seemingly infinite source of fascination for us all.

Successful leadership tends to be defined by some common traits – decisiveness (right or wrong, frankly), confidence, clarity, inspiration, empathy with the led, accountability and influence. There is also a consensus on what leadership is not – it has little to do with seniority, or rank, or titles, or raw charisma. Introverts and people at the coal face can make exceptional leaders within their sphere of operation. And, of course, leadership is not management (cue tons of literature on this point).

In recent times, subtler leadership skills have gained prominence. For example, in ‘Good to Great’ from 2001, business consultant and author Jim Collins captivated us with Level 5 Leadership, demonstrating, counterintuitively, that personal humility, when combined with professional will, can contribute both to a breakthrough and to sustained high performance in the corporate domain.

A 2009 TEDx Talk by writer and motivational speaker Simon Sinek introduced a powerful lesson in leadership, again dialling up the importance of emotional intelligence. ‘Start with why’ evidenced that the ability to inspire is driven less by what you do or how you do it, more by why you do it. In his subsequent book of the same name, Sinek expanded upon how a sense of purpose can transform a leader’s impact. 

Another major thread running through his work is how true leaders create a safe, collaborative environment for those they lead, where trust prevails and loyalty blossoms. Why do people, under these conditions, give their blood, sweat and tears to support a leader’s vision? The response is universal: “Because they would have done it for me”. 

Sinek has become a go-to guy for how contemporary leadership works, with an enviable following of his own. On a related subject, he has also entered the discussion on how to get the best from millennials, now the largest living generation in the US, and subjects of some concern among employers used to a more biddable workforce. 

This cohort, born between 1980 and 2000, has been criticised for its impatience, fragility and sense of entitlement. These are clearly not career-enhancing characteristics but Sinek weighs in heavily on the side of millennials. He believes they have been dealt a bad hand from parents who have set unrealistic expectations for them, from unrestricted access to dopamine-inducing smart devices (interestingly, Steve Jobs limited how much technology his kids used at home), and from a style of leadership which fails to satisfy their acute desire for personal and professional development.

Broadly, Sinek argues, the result is a generation which is experiencing low self-esteem, an obsession with instant gratification and difficulty in forming meaningful relationships. Millennials need help and as, by 2020, they will form 50% of the global workforce, there is no time to lose.  

Fortunately, there are some positive signs. Amid the calls for more transparent, trust-building supervision (feeding the millennials’ need for openness, authenticity, connection, alignment), an important word is entering the leadership lexicon, namely kindness. Not new, obviously, and frequently cited as a key relationship builder, but sparingly, in my opinion, hailed as a primary leadership virtue.

However, in a blog posted only last month, iconic Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson shared his view that now, more than ever before, the business world and wider society need leaders who are kind, generous and considerate.   

Depressingly, across the Atlantic, there is a leader (of the free world no less) who is hogging the headlines with a style of leadership which takes us back to a pre-Collins, pre-Sinek, pre-Branson age. I sympathise with the travails of blue-collar America (if not with the faith they have placed in President Trump) and am chastened by the socio-economic implications of their election and our referendum but his replacement of 21st century leadership insight with primitive, divisive, impulsive egomania is troubling, even if you believe that we get the leaders we deserve.

Back from the discredited have come ‘I’m the boss, I’m right, I can give you anything you want, there are enemies everywhere, look at me, my way or the highway, you’re fired!’  

Early signs are that even Trump’s own bureaucracy won’t give him an entirely free rein. This is reassuring but the longer-term hope is that his approach will simply not be tolerated by the maturing generation of young adults.

Rather than scratch our heads about millennials, therefore, let us regard them as leverage for a better way which, in the words of Richard Branson, “will take you to more places in life and in business than being argumentative and uncaring ever will”. 

Kindness is a sign of strength, costs very little, is contagious and will significantly help enlightened leaders with the holy trinity of creating sustainable value, having fun and changing the world.