Narinder Uppal, Membership Bodies & Charities Consultant, discusses how leadership styles are adapting to the new working environment
The disruption we have been navigating from the global Covid-19 pandemic has caused high levels of uncertainty. Organisations have not only been facing an anticipated severe economic downturn and growing financial concern but have been up against sudden changes to their customer needs and behaviours. For membership bodies, this has meant making quick adjustments to their content to support their members through this period and pivoting their service delivery to online, all while coming to terms with a new remote working practice. Senior leaders have had to spring into action to guide their organisation through these very sudden and highly unexpected circumstances.
To explore the role of the senior leader in this period of disruption and to discuss leadership style now and going forward, I hosted a virtual round-table discussion with several chief executives of membership bodies and asked Phil James, CEO of The Institute of Leadership & Management, to co-host the event.
Phil began by posing a simple question to the room: “What do you do as a leader?”. He proposed that the common view is that in times of crisis like these, leaders should step up to show strong and decisive leadership, to rally and motivate the team to deliver results, compelled by a strong vision of the future. But he challenged this dominant view of leadership, asking everyone to reflect on what we are doing now and our experiences over the past few months.
Through times of crisis, leaders are expected to power through complexity, but Phil questioned whether there is an alternative view, asking, “what about the lessons that lockdown is offering?”. Just as everyone else in the organisation, business leaders are working through great unpredictability. Although difficult, this has presented an opportunity for leaders to think seriously about the organisation and the nature of leadership and management, taking some of the learning experiences and adaptations made recently as long-term arrangements rather than transitory measures.
This reflective approach to management needs to be built into the way that we think about designing strategy, challenging the commonly-held view that leadership is about creating a robust and detailed plan to see the organisation through. Phil warned that
“strategy shouldn’t be about solidifying but about the capacity to constantly evolve”.
Connected to being a strategic decision-maker, there is a need for a leader to have an appropriate and well-considered communication style. This has become more important than ever with the current lockdown measures as transparency can be compromised with a remote workforce. Leaders need to find the happy medium between being too present, often coming across as overbearing, with being too detached, creating a perception of negligence. Phil asked, “how much of what we see – the daily team briefings, the all-team Zoom conferences, and the short video blogs – are all about the anxiety and insecurity of the leader?” He explained that, “of course leaders should aim to keep in touch, but as a way of developing relationships, rather than checking up on their team”.
As a result of this communication, we should see a shift in measures of success. Striking the right balance will role model for others to let go of the focus on presenteeism, enabling output and quality of work to prevail as a more effective assessment of an employee’s contribution over traditional measures of productivity. As we will inevitably work more remotely in the future, leaders should be focusing on their relationships with their colleagues and building a level of trust. One of the implications of lockdown that is often not properly recognised is the extent to which we are dependent upon one another to get things done. All too often, we fall into the idea that leaders are separate to what’s going on in their teams, with special powers of foresight to make great choices about the future.
“I’d like the lessons from lockdown to include a radical challenge to the way we think about what we’re doing as managers, and to stimulate a way of thinking about leadership as something that arises in the relationships within a team, rather than as a special set of qualities possess by one individual.”
Within this discussion of leadership style, we also touched on the characteristic of empathy. Being an empathic leader really means understanding the needs of others and providing relevant support or advice – Phil suggested we should all “listen, encourage and be kind”. Leaders have to consider the human side of management, giving their teams time to settle into the lockdown lifestyle and the new working environments we were suddenly pushed into. Leaders need to balance some important tensions, like the challenge of being fair and consistent, with the need to be mindful of different people’s specific needs and personal demands
Beyond the conversation about leadership, our discussion led us to consider the practical industry challenges we are facing – thinking about examples such as digital transformation and remote and flexible working practices. Phil suggested that,
“new business priorities haven’t actually emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather long-standing burning issues have become intensified”.
Although the move to remote working and digital service delivery was suddenly mandated, discussions of this being the future of work were initiated years ago with many organisations already having integrated the necessary tools and infrastructure to enable this. Phil said, “organisations that are only just embracing digital and virtual working now are really behind the curve. Strategically, the boat for this has long since sailed”. Leaders need to be thinking about the future of this ‘new normal’, how best to prepare the organisation, and its staff, for the next disruption.
This period of disruption has given us the opportunity to reframe how we think about leadership. Organisations must be able to adapt with agility, rather than rely upon outdated leadership models based on clear direction and strong decision making. Critical business needs are inseparable from the view that organisations are fundamentally about groups of humans acting jointly towards achieving certain goals. At this time, leaders should be looking to reflect on their experiences, to better understand how they can influence the organisation for the ‘new normal’. Key to this is our ability to learn from lockdown and adapt the way that we think about and practice leadership to support the goals and aspirations they share with their team.
*bold and capital letters text are not part of the original article.