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The leadership we all need right now

People are experiencing unprecedented levels of disruption in their homes and communities, as well as in their jobs. COVID-19 has stripped leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives. However what kind of leadership your team needs first and foremost?

There is a lot of research and material out there on leadership qualities, which can become overwhelming to pick between the ‘right’ ones. In this article, I have taken it back to basics, and outlined the five key behaviours and actions that will help you to foster meaningful connections and communications with your employees without it becoming another full-time job.

1. Build culture of being present NOT presenteeism

In a survey of 2,000 employees, Bain & Company found that among 33 leadership traits the ability to be mindfully present (also called centeredness) is the most essential of all. Research also suggests that there’s a direct correlation between leaders’ mindfulness and the wellbeing and performance of their people. In other words, the more a leader is present with their people, the better they will perform.

Lack of presence leaves people feel unheard and frustrated. To truly engage other human beings and create meaningful connections, we need to silence our inner voices and be fully present.

In turn, presenteeism means employees are not performing to optimal levels but show up anyway to conform to a particular workplace culture (or because they cannot afford losing their job). According to Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) survey published in 2018, 86% of respondents observed presenteeism within their organisations; despite this, only 25% had taken steps to discourage it.

As mentioned in my last week’s article, presenteeism is also one of the contributors for burnout.

2. Have courage to show vulnerability

Vulnerability might seem out-of-place when dropped into the workplace, however in these times more than ever, it has a new-found power.

As part of series ‘Leadership in crisis’ McKinsey lists vulnerability as one of four qualities that is critical for business leaders to care for people in crisis and set the stage for business recovery. Brené Brown, the best-selling author, claims that vulnerability and leadership go hand in hand, as both require taking the risk of stepping forward and showing up in a forum that exposes us. She argues that you cannot be courageous without being vulnerable. Perhaps it is fair to say that all three – leadership, vulnerability and courage – go hand in hand?

Vulnerability is often perceived as a courage and strength in others and a weakness in ourselves. This double standard often prevents us from reaping the reward vulnerability brings, which are increased creativity and innovation within our teams.

Pairing vulnerability with confidence in the next normal is critical to help people transition from states of anger or denial into working together to build a desirable future.

3. Build trust through transparency

We’ve all learned a lot about trust over the past few months. We’ve had to trust our leaders that they have a crisis plan, trust our workforce that they’ll be productive while remote, and trust that our organisations have the right technologies in place that will serve the critical needs of both employees and customers.

Maintaining a sense of transparency, even when we don’t have all the answers, has significant advantages, including better productivity, employee motivation and satisfaction, and increased morale. All of which are essential for keeping the business running during these hard times.

4. Approach conflict and problem solving in a creative manner

As we are all experiencing levels of vulnerability and uncertainty, we are looking towards those that we trust more than ever; trusting that they will act with predictability, integrity and have a certain level of benevolence. The challenge however is to acknowledge, openly share and reflect on shadow patterns where they exist.

This means that leaders will have to ask themselves if they are having the right conversations with their employees. These conversations will have to open up deep and personal discussions around motivation and suggestions for change, release emotions and doubts and find ways to look at conflict and confusion together.

The benefits of a collaborative conflict resolution are endless: better informed decision-making, alternative thinking and new ways of looking at the problem and an environment to harness new ideas and brainstorm different solutions.

5. Encourage two-way mentoring

Leading on, leaders and managers have to be truly comfortable with their emotions and those of others, as they strive to bring out the best from the team.

This means leaders will have to learn much more deeply to ‘coach’ their team and individual employees. Equally important, those reports will have to be empowered to coach the leader in return. In other words, openness to everyone’s suggestions, feelings and ideas are crucial; including the ability to be swayed, to be confused at times, remain curious, and to not always know the answer. This will give both sides a fresh perspective, prompt to reframe their engagement or management style, improve interpersonal effectiveness and even advance their careers.

Moreover, this makes people feel heard and included, and enables individuals to freely express themselves and foster an environment of psychological safety. It withholds judgement and welcomes diversity of self-expression.

In conclusion

COVID-19 has not just changed the world but also changed the DNA of our workplace ecosystem in many ways. Our leaders must change as well to lead effectively in this new era. We cannot afford to treat COVID-19 crisis as an anomaly, instead businesses need to prepare for a world in which such disruptions are the new norm. It is also important to note that there will be no going ‘back to normal’.

This pandemic has really revealed that we’re all human beings. No one is immune. Leaders who will excel will be the ones who can connected to that human aspect.


Sources and further reading


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