For the first time in recent history, thanks to the pandemic, leaders of the world over are sharing the same impacts on the way they lead. Dealing with the volatility of change, feeling largely the same way (exhausted), and being forced to embrace different ways of leading to drive engagement and at the same time remain relevant. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was probably the last time we came close to this, but even then, we could still maintain social and business norms, and know that (if you still had a job) you could still head into the office. But not every country was impacted by the GFC in the same way that all countries have been impacted by Covid.
This is what makes this such a unique time in the world of leadership development right now.
When I think of the soft skills that will be necessary for leaders to be effective this year as we transition to living and working alongside Covid, there are three that stand out for me. Depending on where you are reading this article you may need to make some nuanced changes to what I’m sharing, but by and large, I do think these leadership skills should be making their way into the playbook of any corporate leadership development programs around the globe this year.
Have the Courage (and discipline) to Exercise Self-Empathy
We need to be in touch with what’s going on inside of us and understand how our mindset and emotions may be impacting our decision-making and behaviours.
Why is this important?
The last two years have not been easy, and right now we are heading into 2022 leading the fatigued, when we ourselves can be counted amongst the fatigued and battle-weary. It’s common knowledge that we don’t make the best decisions when we are tired, stressed or just not in the right headspace. It’s up to us as leaders to firstly acknowledge that it’s ok to be feeling a bit tired (even the most self-aware leaders would be coming into 2022 with some residual fatigue!). By making this acknowledgment internally, we are also making room for the same acknowledgment to be made amongst our team. This is a conversation that probably needs to be had sooner rather than later…is your team doing ok?
Being in touch with our mental and physical well-being also means we can do something about it so we can be setting ourselves up for success. There’s nothing selfish about this. How can we be fully present for our people if we are running low on fuel and barely making it to the end of the day or week? We can get in our own way on this front and inhibit our efforts to look after ourselves. Sometimes it’s pride, other times we can be unnecessarily self-sacrificing or just poor at delegating. Perhaps we just put ourselves second, whether that’s due to lower self-esteem, self-confidence, or other factors. Whatever the reason, own it and be brave; do something about it. Otherwise, the other factors below won’t be so easy to address.
Accept that Rituals are a Necessary Leadership Practice
The last two years could be considered practice for this capability; and this year could be considered ‘game day’! Before we transitioned to virtual and then hybrid ways of working it was taken for granted that we could more easily connect with our peers and team members and build relationships spontaneously and organically. That doesn’t mean we were consistently good at it, but that was our norm.
Now, we need to think about how we build relationships in a virtual world, where it is still normal not to have met your own manager, peers, or direct reports in person after many months. It would be nice to think that building relationships virtually has become easier, maybe even natural for some, but we can’t assume that we have nailed it. Because I can guarantee you that we haven’t. This year we need to get good at creating rituals with each of our individual team members that allow them to feel recognised despite the physical distance. (Have you checked out our Lead2Remotely Engage program?)
Rituals tailored to your individual team members creates the opportunity for trust to be built, and the space for genuine conversations and sharing. Equally important are rituals for the whole team; moments when you come together to connect and share. Rituals have always been important for building engaging relationships however it was seen as a ‘nice to have’…getting the job done always tended to be more important, especially in Anglo or Germanic cultures. We can’t afford to keep this mindset; not if we want a genuinely engaged workforce in a virtual or hybrid world. Creating rituals allows your people to feel connected with and to feel acknowledged. And when it becomes a ‘business as usual’ practice, it creates a natural momentum in your relationship that leads to trust and a reduction in the psychological distance that we are always aiming for.
Get Comfortable with VUCA Leadership
It’s going to be some time before we can settle into a normal rhythm without disruption driven by the pandemic. There are still factors we can’t be sure about, and even though we try to keep pace with and anticipate how things will be, the reality is (as we’ve all experienced) that we will get curveballs. Our ability to remain balanced, resilient and adapt to shifting norms is now a critical skill and mindset for leaders. In large complex organisations, this has always been the case and experienced leaders in global and matrix style organisations may already be well-versed in dealing with ambiguity. Now it’s time for leaders to make their peace with the V, U and C of VUCA, and not just the Ambiguity where the focus in leadership development has been for many years:
Volatility: The Volatility and rate of change we’ve experienced these last two years isn’t something we should be looking back on and thinking ‘thank goodness that’s over with’. This year effective leaders will be reflecting on that volatility and what they learned about themselves, and who they were as a leader, throughout that time. The questions to ask include:
Uncertainty: Over the last couple of years, to what extent did we as leaders offer a version of certainty in the daily lives of our team when not a whole lot else seemed certain? If we weren’t exercising much self-empathy, and were leading inconsistently, then we mightn’t have offered a whole lot of structure or certainty. When we put ourselves in the shoes of our team, the one thing that isn’t changing daily are the people in my team and my manager. And at a fundamental level, that is a form of structure and certainty that we often underestimate as leaders. So; to what extent did you offer certainty in the lives of your team – and what can you be doing to improve it for 2022 (and beyond)?
Complexity: An essential skill always, and a little more necessary today than previously, is the ability to extract yourself from the day to day so you can see your whole landscape. Sometimes referred to as taking the helicopter view, it’s also an opportunity to take a more rational view of your world. It’s one of the simplest ways to make sense of the complexity that can sometimes seem overwhelming. When our senses are being battered from all angles, our ability to rise above it and see things for how they really are is a life saver. Whilst ever the pace and volatility of change remains moderate to high, this capability is often your best counter-measures.
What missed the cut?
Of course, there are many other capabilities that will support you as a leader in the context of this year and some that fall just outside my top three include being able to have meaningful conversations, creating a healthy virtual/hybrid team culture, leading collaboratively and leading change. However, even these capabilities rely on my top three to be effective.
As the globe begins the transition to an endemic view of Covid, there will be a higher frequency uncertainty in our lives at home and at work. No, they may not be as high impacting as the experiences of 2020 and 2021. But they will require that leaders maintain forward momentum so that their teams can see how they need to be investing their energy each day, week, and month.
The three capabilities shared here offer leaders the best opportunity to do this in 2022 and beyond.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.