The future of leadership is always being questioned and explored and yet the reality is that successful leaders today, and into the future, will most likely carry the same core qualities as those from years gone by. They will be leaders who have vision, leverage disruption and encourage constructive risk taking. Above all, they will get that the relationships they create with their people will continue to be the beating heart of their success as a leader.
And in the context of the biggest disruptor to business that we've experienced in recent times, Covid-19, I believe that this aspect will come more sharply into focus. It's what I call the Relational Leader. And I believe it will be a non-negotiable.
To put this in context let’s look at leadership through a couple of lenses that matter today, and will increase in importance exponentially over the next couple of years.
Engaging Generations Y and Z
It’s too easy (and lazy) to write off these generations with broad-brush strokes that categorise them as superficial and being the ‘me’ or the ‘I want it and I want it now’ crowd. Yes - I still hear those statements. The reality is that this is a generation connected to values, to each other and to the world as much as the generations that came before it – if not more. It goes without saying then that the most successful leaders will be those who take the time to connect with and genuinely understand what drives them. You can’t discover this unless you build a relationship that is more than chatting about what you did on the weekend or the task at hand. The world is changing and we are well and truly in the Involvement Age. As the name suggests, the people we are leading will increasingly expect to be involved at work. They will want to be:
So the more you understand, and really know the people you are leading, the more you will know how to direct their energy, and engage them in ‘why’ they are working with you. Of course this doesn't just apply to Generations Y and Z, but in many respects these are the generations who are explicitly seeking more than just a job. I know there are plenty of Boomers and Generation X'ers out there who also want that same deeper connection with their job; but unlike with Generations Y & Z, we often need to work harder to tease this out of them, to understand what this means and looks like. With Generations Y & Z you don't need to look too hard to learn what's important to them, and this is ok; but does require a more Relational style of leadership to engage and optimise the energy in the moment.
This is very important in the context of the following point; we can't take for granted that if work is happening in a remote setting that it must be because my team is engaged. And this one applies to all generations!
Engaging in Virtual, Complex & Global Environment
Everyday the world is becoming smaller, and despite the events of the last 6 months, globalisation is not going away. It may happen differently, but it will still be around. We all know first hand of the virtual nature of working; at some point in the last six months all of us have been touched by this - even employees who still had to come to the office or a plant would have had colleagues or managers working remotely. In any of these circumstances, embracing a Relational approach to leadership is a non-negotiable for ensuring genuine engagement. And don't be fooled by the talk that is seeping out saying that teams have never been so engaged!
What I'm really seeing when I drill down in these conversations, is that the teams are more productive than usual...and that is not the same being engaged.
In a recent post I spoke of the necessity for leaders in highly disruptive times to lean on their management skills as much, if not more so, than their leadership skills - which fits with the narrative that our people will be more focused on getting their jobs done, and of course this equals productivity. Hence the confusion. For years we've known that one of the key outcomes of engaging leadership is productivity. But don't confuse survival driven productivity with engaged productivity. Chances are you've had a mix of both over the last six months, and it's important that you start to look beyond the work that is getting done to understand why it's getting done. (...this almost feels a bit like the classic X & Y Theory coming to life!)
What we think we know is that in the future there will continue to be an element of remote working. For leaders this is an ongoing piece of complexity that will bring challenges. That's a fact, and let's face it, there are many leaders who struggle with leading in a traditional co-located environment let alone with a team that is spread out. But through the Relational lens, it doesn't have to be as difficult, and you can bring a style of leadership that engages and motivates in such a way that people feel like they belong – irrespective of where they are located.
So what does this mean for the future of leadership?
Probably the same thing it’s always meant; that we are leading people who at their core desire acknowledgement for who they are, and recognition for what they bring. People who, as Maslow suggested, like to belong. Factors that have never changed; but are about to become just a little more important to the leadership success equation. Perhaps it will become the era of the Relational Leader.
Author: David Morley