Dec 05 2020| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
2020 has undoubtedly been an ‘interesting’ year. The challenge continues, and leaders who are willing to learn and adapt will enter 2021 with greater strength as their skills are tested and refined.
During the past 12 months, from my perspective of supporting and challenging the island’s leaders, I have seen a series of defining moments that have highlighted the importance of effective leadership.
The global pandemic has significantly changed the way we work and, while the pace of change has been immense, the challenges have underscored three crucial leadership qualities.
During lockdown, the most effective leaders quickly took the initiative to use technology and other approaches to keep in touch with their staff, primarily to support and encourage them. This takes time and initiative but has proven essential in building resilience and boosting staff engagement.
Understanding others’ perspectives and experiences and respecting them raises trust. Low empathy undermines trust, compromising a business’s ability to achieve excellent results.
The present and future belongs to leaders who are interested in their people, understanding and listening in order to build resilience and creativity in their organisations.
Details and direction have changed quickly during the crisis; we’ve needed to see and hear directly from leaders in order to be clear and confident about what’s needed and expected. Leaders set the tone by consistently and frequently communicating, even when the news is bad.
Many leaders with whom we speak have experienced the benefits of spending more time with people and building relationships.
Presence takes courage but it is an essential quality for great leadership. Those ‘fair-weather’ leaders who have been absent are likely to be left behind. It’s time for those leaders to step aside and pass on the baton to others with courage and passion.
This year has presented so many ‘can’t-do’ moments, yet agile leaders have met these head on and found new ways to operate, in some cases launching new services and products.
Working from home is a common example. Many leaders found that, when pushed, it became entirely possible for staff to work remotely. The surprise for many was the way in which their organisations embraced new technology and ways of working rapidly - a key feature of agile people.
Anyone now expecting a new normal to be anything other than fast-paced change is deluded. Leaders must be able to approach challenges hopefully and create the conditions that enable their entire organisation to adopt a ‘resolving’ mindset.
The Black Lives Matter movement has gathered significant momentum, sparked by a series of incidents in the US, including the death of George Floyd. The issues surrounding racially motivated violence are deep, however, the BLM protests highlight three enduring leadership challenges.
1. Power and privilege
Lord Acton famously said that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Power dynamics shape any system, often without a conscious awareness. The BLM movement highlights how power dynamics and privilege are racially biased, especially in the West.
Good leadership shares power amongst the many, rather than the privileged few. This includes a willingness to change conventional approaches for the long-term benefit of the company, even if that means stepping back personally.
At a women’s empowerment event, we explored the idea proposed by Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful, that there is a connection between power and joy. Those leaders who genuinely empower others create more joyful environments. They encourage creativity, are keen to identify and elevate talented people and are secure enough to step back.
2. Creative thinking, challenging conventions
We frequently encounter leadership teams that have created an ‘echo chamber’: recycling the same ideas rather than creating new ones. Leaders who build their teams in their own image refuse to hear challenge and often fail to think beyond what’s worked before.
Effective leaders actively seek different perspectives and experiences, refusing to make snap judgments about someone’s credibility and exploring whether they have the potential to add value to the organisation based on their merits.
We’re generally disposed towards people with whom we have a connection, but building a talented, diverse team is vital to success.
The only bias that has any merit is a bias towards achieving the company’s objectives.
3. Wilful blindness
Margaret Heffernan describes a condition called ‘wilful blindness’, whereby we can choose to be blind to the errors and abuses that we know exist around us.
The BLM movement highlights this. Large swathes of the community have chosen to be blind to the abuses that are evident, hence the movement’s passionate advocacy for justice, healing and freedom.
Effective leaders invite critical feedback to identify problems and address them. They do not deny the problem, even if it is inconvenient. The ability to listen and take on board unpalatable truths sets excellent leaders apart from everyone else.
The emerging workforce is concerned for the environment. Tomorrow’s leaders will place a high emphasis on climate change and sustainable practices and expect to see this in these ways:
How do we hope to make a meaningful and positive difference to the world we live in?
Every company has the potential to connect meaning and purpose with work. For most, it can be found in the foundations of the company; insurance businesses contribute to people’s health, wellbeing and safety, while banks improve people’s lives by financing homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Leaders who emerge in the coming years will ensure a connection between the activity they are leading and meaningful impact.
Seeking to sustain the source of our resources is demanded by customers and employees alike. Those who disregard this imperative will be penalised by an exodus of clients and talent.
‘Greenwashing’ is another phrase that has emerged in 2020, the idea that a company is more interested in looking ‘green’ to the outside world than actually improving its practices.
Authenticity is a key hallmark of effective leaders who consistently communicate with a high degree of transparency. Their self-confidence is expressed as a commitment to personal values and sound judgement rather than self-promotion.
In a world swirling with fake news, leaders must pursue authenticity and have the confidence to do the right thing, not just the expedient thing.
3. Long-term perspectives
During the 1980s, businesses became focused on short-term financial targets. Today’s leaders are looking ahead, seeking to balance both the short and long term.
Building a long-term business means considering future employees and customers, developing sustainable systems that might take many years to pay off and recognising that your leadership is designed to pass the company on for someone else to take forward.
Leaders need to balance both short- and long-term thinking, ensuring a movement towards a compelling future, built on sustainable, short-term steps forward. Effective leaders resist the seduction of short-termism and build better for the future.
Think about it like this: what’s the legacy that you’re leaving, and what will people say about you in the months and years after you’ve left your leadership role?
You can find my entire leadership series in Business Brief magazine.