International Leadership Week 2021: Is it time for reinvention?

A group of orange clownfish observe a rainbow clownfish

Working within any organisation over the past couple of years has been a roller-coaster of a ride. Concerns and uncertainty have been around every corner and have extended out from our work into our home lives. It’s not been easy for people; however, those charged with ‘managing and driving performance’ – our leaders – have more than likely faced even more challenging times amidst a plethora of particularly difficult situations.

Some of the early issues concerning the pandemic were, in many cases, forced upon leaders – suspending activities due to lockdown; moving to home-working; whether to furlough workers or to make them redundant; or simply trying to batten down the hatches and weather the storm in the hope of better times ahead – all have constrained decision making and tested the mettle of even the most experienced leaders.

Despite the difficulties encountered over the past couple of years however, does the real challenge still lie ahead of us?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Setting aside some real concerns around Covid as we head into winter, there is a new sense of optimism surrounding businesses, characterised by a rapid hiring spree and an attempt to capitalise on pent-up demand. At face value all highly promising. And whilst that optimism may not extend to public-sector organisations where the ongoing pressure to ‘do more with less’ continues unabated, it’s widely accepted that moving away from the pandemic is a welcome and positive step (even if it still remains a cautious one).

And with that move into a new reality comes new and unexpected challenges – many of which have not been experienced by today’s leaders. Attracting and retaining people, articulating a compelling vision for the future and establishing new working practices are now key areas of focus across the leadership spectrum. None are new and many – particularly those impinging on the broader talent agenda – have existed for some time. However, things are changing and leaders will need to adapt accordingly given that many of these issues are now more acute than previously.

It’s also increasingly evident that the ties between employer and employee are looser now than ever before. Despite some innovative approaches to flex business in order to try and accommodate changing societal norms, much remains to be done – and in a tight employment market with an abundance of vacancies that is a real and pressing issue. With leaders setting the ‘tone’ across an organisation, those in leadership roles have to both acknowledge change across their workforce as well as coming up with new approaches to ensure that their organisation maintains competitive advantage. How many are equipped to navigate their teams through increasingly choppy waters remains to be seen.

That said, whilst much has changed, much remains the same. Ensuring that ‘leaders’ practice and adhere to those traits commonly flagged by employees as ‘essential’. Integrity, appreciation, enthusiasm, drive, tenacity, supportiveness, self-awareness and humility, amongst others, are and will remain key – never more so than in the current climate. Many leaders possess ‘most’ of these traits however few possess ‘all’ of these traits. That’s simply the human condition and it’s important to recognise that leaders aren’t blessed with super-powers. However, these traits do need regular maintenance and development and neglecting them will exacerbate the challenges. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. As such, helping leaders at all levels to continually refine these basic management and leadership skills is more important now than ever.

Equally, other traits and behaviours that have grown in importance and prominence over recent years have been those associated with compassion, resilience and the acceptance that there is an increasing focus for many workers to ensure that they achieve the right balance between work and home. Helping people to find that balance and to then succeed – both personally and professionally – is more than ever the name of the game.
It’s not easy to blend these behaviours together. Leadership in the 2020’s now requires a far greater depth and breadth of skill than has been the case previously. The ‘command and control’ leader of days past is fast-becoming an aged curiosity and is being replaced with leaders who have the vision, drive and commercial understanding alongside highly developed ‘softer’ skills such as empathy and a clear appreciation as to what an employee in today’s workplace is motivated by.

Leadership is, forever, a work in progress. Whether building your pipeline of future leaders or looking at how you can further enhance the performance of your current leaders, investing in their development and understanding that leadership is a journey where skills need to continually evolve is central. Leadership is an art that is continually evolving and we need our leaders to understand that continual reinvention is needed whilst providing them with the support and tools to do this.