7 Disruptive Leadership Trends That Will Rule 2021

Just when you thought the world couldn’t get any more turbulent or surprising, the opening moments of 2021 still have everyone trying to catch their breath.

So what are the leadership trends you should be tracking in 2021?

For years I’ve done a series of church trends posts. You can read the 2021 Disruptive Church Trends post here (along with backlinks to the Trends Series over the last five years). While those trends are aimed at church leaders, the implications are broader than that.

Last year, I added a more general Leadership Trends post, focusing on a broader swath of issues facing all leaders, businesses, entrepreneurs, non-profits, professionals—essentially all of us who lead.

5 Disruptive Leadership Trends That Will Rule 2020

Despite the insanity that became 2020, those trends outlined in January of 2020 continue to play out right into today.

Which leads us to 2021.

In all likelihood, this year will take us into the post-pandemic world. It won’t be the light switch you hope for (and suddenly, we’re all back!). Instead, it will be a gradual emergence into whatever our normalized future looks like. But at some point in 2021, you’ll look back and realize most of the pandemic is behind you and the future is ahead of you.

The question is, what kind of new reality will emerge? What should you expect as a leader?

So, in the hopes of helping every leader lead more effectively, here are seven disruptive trends every leader needs to watch in 2021.

1. Super-High Turnover (Far More People Than Usual Will Quit, Move and Leave)

As hard as this is to hear, every leader should brace themselves for higher than usual turnover in the next twelve months.

In 2021, far more people—staff, volunteers, team members, and tribe—will quit, move and leave than typical. There’s a lot of lag in the system, and more options than ever as the world reopens.

This is a short term trend, but a real one. Some of the turnover will be natural and healthy. Some of it won’t be.

I discussed this trend with the CEO of a staffing search firm who said that some of it is due to a storm surge in the system. Very few people moved or quit in 2020 given what was going on. (If you want more, check out Episode 382 of my Leadership Podcast with William Vanderbloemen.)

As the post-pandemic world emerges, many employees will rethink their future—from what they want to do,  what they want their life to look like and where they want to live (witness the exit from NYC, California and other major cities/states).

In addition, in light of the stress levels, many leaders who were contemplating retirement or succession may end up accelerating the time line.

The point in all this is both to nurture your current team (especially your top people) and to prepare.

If you value your team, now’s the time to let them know and the time to show them you’d love to keep them.

Also, be sure to read to Trend 5. In 2021, the good news for employers and employees is that changing cities doesn’t have to involve changing jobs.

2. Nothing and No One Will Quite Go Back to Normal

They say it takes 21 days (or 66 days, depending on who you read) to form a habit.

The pandemic will easily pass 365 days before its resolved. That means a lot of new habits have been formed.

Think about how much your patterns have shifted in the last year. From work, to schooling, to shopping and eating habits, to travel and vacationing, to how you entertain yourself and your family, to your work out routine—so much has shifted.

Personally, as a public speaker who was flying over 100,000 miles a year leading into the pandemic, I’ve decided not to be on the road as much in the future.  It’s better for me, my company and the people I love.

Multiply the new and shifted habits by millions of people and you’ll quickly realize that normal has changed a lot in the last year.

That said, many leaders are still counting on things ‘going back to normal’ in the post-pandemic era and they’ve aligned their strategy around it.

Going back to normal only works if normal still exists. And leaders, normal as you knew it, appears to have died.

That’s because crisis is an accelerator.

Trends that might have taken years to materialize have embedded themselves more permanently in the last year (like, for example, the remote work, take out, delivery and drive-thru in the food industry, or the much deeper adoption of online shopping).

As much as you may wish that weren’t true (depending on your industry), ignoring it, pretending it’s not happening and arguing it shouldn’t be the case will not reverse it.

For sure, there will be some snap back (I’d love to go to a concert too and sit on a beach somewhere warm).

The world we left in 2019 has morphed into something new and different in 2021 and beyond.

Denial is not a strategy (or at least not a very good one).

3. Loyalties Will Shift…Significantly

When everything’s changing, people change.

As a result, when culture moves into the post-pandemic era and the dust settles enough to see clearly, leaders will realize people’s loyalties have shifted— in some cases, dramatically.

In light of Trend #2, the question then becomes how many of your existing clients, customers or congregation will still be with you in the post-pandemic era?

For most leaders, it’s been almost impossible to track who your customers are, who you’ve gained and who you’ve lost.

You see overall numbers, but knowing exactly who those people are can be challenging.

When things normalize, you’ll get a much clearer picture of who has left, who’s still here and who you’ve picked up.

It’s obvious that if you’ve grown, you have new people on board in 2021. But even if the last year has been a flat or declining year for you, there will in all likelihood, be people who came for the first time who are now part of what you’re doing.

Naturally, you may want to focus on who you’ve lost and try to bring them back. That’s worth a bit of time and energy.  But it’s important to remember, they left for a reason…and multiple attempts on your part might feel desperate and end up being futile.

It’s probably wiser to focus the majority of your time, energy and resources nurturing the people you’ve kept and the people you’ve picked up.

People who are on mission with you will create a better future than people who are off-mission or have left the mission.

4. Home Will Emerge As The New Hub

As much as people are longing to get out of their homes and back into culture, the home will never be quite what it was before COVID.

In 2021 and beyond, home will emerge as the new hub.

Since the crisis began, home became the new hub for six things that more usually happened outside the home: fitness, schooling, work, shopping, entertainment and church.

Some of that will snap back, but not all of it.

The world we left in 2019 was still a ‘come to us’ world: Amazon was making major inroads and malls were already struggling (as were churches, theatres and other sectors).

Many people have already reconfigured their homes for fitness, offices, entertainment and (when it’s okay again) better hospitality (so many people have rediscovered or discovered cooking).

In the post-pandemic world, leaders who are waiting for people to come to them will realize it’s much smarter to go to people instead.

And if your organization is designed to have people come to you (live events, restaurants, gyms, theatres, churches) you will likely need better experiences to lure people away from their redesigned homes and new habits.

5. Remote Work Will Move from An Emergency or Luxury to A Necessity

Remote work has been accelerated at a rapid pace.

Some predictions are that in 2021, the number of people working permanently from home will double over even 2020 levels.

As DropBox explains here about its decision to become a digital first company, most companies are never going back to how it was. That’s even more true in the for-profit world than in the non-profit world.

Long before COVID,  many employers were already frustrated with (youngish) team members who wanted to work from home, from coffee shops and have flex hours.

Now, many workers have discovered they love working from home and will insist on it moving into the future.

If you want to attract and keep highly talented team members, remote work options have become a necessity, not just an emergency measure or a luxury.

The future workplace is a flexible workplace, at least if you want to compete.

Having led a virtual team for years, I agree it can be challenging but it’s immensely rewarding, far more rewarding in fact than it is challenging.

If you want more, here are my top 7 practices for leading a digital team.

I also offer an online course on how to achieve top performance from your remote or hybrid team. You can learn more or gain immediate access here.

 6. Instability Combined With Rapid Change Will Require Even More Agility 

2021 will also bring two things no leader is hoping for: instability coupled with rapid change.

The externally imposed rapid change in 2020 caused by the pandemic and global shut down, will be replaced by the rapid change demanded by a newly reopened and different world.

And as much as you won’t likely see the same level of cataclysmic change you saw in 2020, the future will likely be both volatile and unstable.

The combination of prolonged instability and rapid change will create new leadership challenges in 2021.

Agile leadership will help you tackle that challenge exceptionally well.

Agile leadership is flexible leadership, the ability to pivot and change not just once, but as often as changing conditions warrant.

In a crisis, agility is ability. Flexibility is a superpower.

7.  A Sustainable Pace (For Everyone) Will Become Non-Negotiable

I know. The last year and the challenges ahead are exhausting.

Leading through a crisis is one thing. Leading through a prolonged crisis is another.

Even in the post-pandemic world, things will be far from stable or predictable for a while to come.

So how will you and your team make it through all that’s ahead?

In 2020, many leaders naturally looked to time off to heal them: a week in the summer, a year-end break, and time at the beach.

All of that is great, except you know exactly what happens when you return: you’re exhausted by 11 a.m. and silently weeping at your desk by 4.

The vacation solved nothing.

Here’s why that happens: time off won’t heal you when the problem is how you spend time on. When every day grinds you into the dust with long hours and extra effort, you may not even make it to your next vacation.

The cure for an unsustainable pace is to create a sustainable pace.

For me, that means mastering the art of saying no, clearing my calendar, deciding to quit doing the things that aren’t working and building in margin to the every day.

If you think you can’t afford to do that, you’re wrong. You can’t afford not to do that.

Having burned out years ago, I know the pain burnout causes. Since then, I’ve not only developed a very sustainable pace (it works even in crisis), I’ve also trained thousands of leaders on how to find their ideal pace.

So here’s to deepening your personal reserves.

If you have deep reserves, tackling everything else in this post becomes not just easier, but doable.

What Do You See? 

What trends are you seeing for 2021?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

With everything changing so rapidly, what are the leadership trends you should be tracking in 2021? Here are seven disruptive trends every leader should watch.


  1. Contractorfinder on September 28, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Hello! Thank you for this amazing article. I absolutely agree with your point about covid and remote work. it wasn’t long before COVID that many companies were fed up with (young) team members who desired the flexibility of working from home, coffee shops, or other off-site locationsWorking from home has become more popular, and many people want to keep it that way in the future.

  2. Contractorfinder on September 23, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Hello! It is really fascinating to read your site, especially the discussion portion. In no way is digital a replacement for physical, but rather a complement. We are living in the last times, and digital media cannot take the place of bringing the lost back to the church, ministering to the body, praying, and bestowing fruit and gifts.

  3. fireboy and watergirl on January 30, 2021 at 2:35 am

    What’s the Plan B if the church gets “Parlered” i.e, de-platformed?

  4. Paul Hatfield on January 28, 2021 at 10:10 am

    Digital is in no way a substitute, maybe a supplement. Our church has been virtually online for 9 months. 6 months ago several hundred people were tuning in on You Tube, now around a dozen. Leaders cannot make it a means to be all means. If we are, and i believe we are, in the last days, digital is not a substitute for reaching the lost, ministering to the body, praying and laying on of hands, or bringing forth the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Digital is impersonal, and can be relied on too much because it takes less effort, less sacrafice of meeting people at their need. What has happened to the days of pastors, church leaders, lay people, visiting people in their homes? If a person is suicidal, and i’m well versed in this, you cannot cannot read the emotional distress of them unless you are hands on, right in the room with them. And you cannot reach them with your compassion, understanding, words of support, unless you are in the flesh with them. Pastors, leaders have to be very careful when implementing digital resources. I am a farmer/rancher by trade, and you cannot herd cows, determine the health of the herd, move them from pasture to pasture, unless you are right out in the middle of them, and that is the exact reason more and more people in our church are not tuning in to Sunday services.

  5. Robert on January 13, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    So I’m not sure I think that your title is reflective of what you’ve written. Well I appreciate listing out how the workplace might change, it doesn’t really hit the nail on anything disruptive that leaders will have to change in 2021. Many companies have been setting the pace and have had remote workers for a number of years. It was just never talked about.

    For example, many companies have made the adjustments quite well and are thriving in the new normal. We have always had virtual meetings and remote workers, but Covid has just expedited how it will play out in years to come. What I think you did is touch on some of the changes that are happening. One of the biggest is that many companies are getting rid of big corporate headquarters and going to smaller hubs across the country.

    Maybe these are some things that are happening in church world, but many businesses are adapting to a new normal. I’m not sure what staffing company you’re talking about in this article,, but I am not seeing people leaving companies. We are seeing people looking for jobs in our area of the country and honestly there are some leadership gaps that need to be addressed. One of the biggest hurdles that companies need to overcome is the applicant systems they have put in place that automate and only look for keywords. If you’ve ever worked with human resources, you will understand when I’m about to say. When these applicant systems are used, they have to be set up with Percision so that they work as advertised. But what ends up happening is that human resources tends to be a lazy organization and the systems make applicants jump through to hurdles. The reason I tell you this is that one leader ship area that I think will be key in 2021 is the hiring an on boarding of employees.

    The other thing is that companies will have to invest more into training. This starts with human resources. What I find and a number of organizations is that they talk a big game about training and they create websites to tell you all the great things that leaders need to be doing, yet those organizations are decaying internally. This is particularly true of churches.

    A trend that I think leaders whole face post Covid will be setting boundaries. Now that everyone has gotten used to virtual meetings, you’re hearing things like zoom anxiety and people just being tired. What happens is that when things are accessible like virtual platforms, then they tend to be so accessible that we abuse the time.

    I could go on with this discussion, but I think that there is a better title needed here for the given article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2021 at 5:40 am

      Thanks Robert. You might be new to my work but I’ve been talking about remote work for years and offer courses on it. We may disagree about angle, but almost every CEO I’ve talked to in the last year has made a quantam leap forward in this area. It’s been disruptive but also helpful…moving them forward. I think the DropBox article shows how much the crisis moved them forward in a short span.

  6. Bobby on January 12, 2021 at 7:00 pm

    What’s the Plan B if the church gets “Parlered” i.e, de-platformed?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2021 at 5:42 am

      Wow. I never saw the church as a Parler thing. Ask Christians in China and other countries where its gone underground. Or Christians in Ancient Rome. The real church will be just fine. The political church will be demolished.

  7. Bryn Joslin on January 12, 2021 at 3:21 am

    I definitely agree about the high turnover and that things will never quite go back to normal. I think for many we’re still in a bubble that hasn’t popped yet. It will probably be only when we get back to normal that we realise how radically different the landscape and are churches are.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2021 at 5:42 am

      Well said Bryn. I agree. 🙂

  8. Mark on January 11, 2021 at 7:48 am

    “The point in all this is both to nurture your current team (especially your top people) and to prepare.” Please be careful with the extent to which you do this. In large organizations with many ranks, if the only people you nurture are the top people and not the top performers, then the people at the bottom don’t get anything and subsequently suffer. They are the people keeping things running on a daily basis since the top rarely does the grunt work though they get all the credit, praise, and recognition.

  9. jane on January 10, 2021 at 2:10 pm

    Oops – I forgot to mention – church service online for me is pretty wonderful. I can concentrate on what the preacher is saying and replay it if I want to.

    P.S. It would be wonderful if we could have a “modify” link on here for our comments!!!

    • Anthony Martin on January 11, 2021 at 10:12 am

      Our small church experienced the high turnover in 2020. From the late Summer of 2019 through the end of 2020, we lost over 50% of our members. Some due to job relocation; several relocated to other churches who offered more ministry to their families. We lost a couple through death and a small percentage who were, I believe, offended in some way. With that being said, the pandemic I feel accelerated the move for most of these former members. We have gained a few new members during this “pruning” season. We’re hoping, praying that 2021 is a year of new growth.

  10. jane on January 10, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    For some people, remote work is fantastic and echoes have it that most people will want this. What I hear is that the younger ones miss the contact of their peers, and for families with young children, (and dogs, who want to connect too) remote work is a bit of an organisation nightmare.

    On the whole though, I really agree with what you said. People are reprioritising their lives and what’s important to them.

    One really positive thing that could come out of this is that malls provide a better service otherwise people will just continue to buy online.

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