Leadership to Navigate the Future of Work
May 21, 2020
As Ralph Stogdill stated so eloquently over 25 years ago, “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept”.
In many ways, we have become victims of our own thoughts as to what leadership is. Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his book Leadership BS: “leaders failed their people, their organizations, the larger society, and even themselves with unacceptable frequency. Every day in the news are more stories of leaders failing.” This was written in 2015. Compound the usual complexities of leading organizations with a global pandemic and the results are not surprising.
Considering that statement, it may seem somewhat arrogant to write an article on what style of leadership is needed for the future of work. How can one expect to have the answers in a time like this? Let me be clear: I do not have all the answers. What follows are observations that can collectively provide a roadmap towards effective leadership for the future.
1. Leadership is hard and not for the faint of heart. Our society considers the term “leader” to be a badge of honor. Many people pursue this label with abandon in hopes that if they gather enough experience and education, they will attain the title. To that I say, “enough”!
If we are to successfully navigate through this pandemic and reset our economies, we need strong leaders. This is not limited only to the latest MBA graduates from the greatest business schools in the world. To effectively lead we must understand that leadership takes many forms, and often the form that is most contrarian is most effective.
2. Leadership is about knowing how to get those around you to learn, grow, and develop; ideally in alignment with the goals of the organization. To do so, leaders must identify positive behaviors and individuals that are going to move the organization towards a goal. When desired behaviors are observed they should be recognized and rewarded to encourage repeated occurrences.
Far too often we assume that desired behaviors are always the same for all contributors. They are not; each employee is unique and has a role to play. Unfortunately, scientific management prefers a one size fits all approach. This tactic is incredibly efficient yet often results in missed opportunities. As Einstein said, “everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
We must keep in mind that employees want to learn; that is, they want to get better at their craft over time. If they do not, they’re probably in the wrong role. And once leaders know what truly is at the heart of an individual, they need to get out of the employees’ way. Nobody likes being told what to do yet far too often many leaders do just that. Most employees thrive on autonomy and it needs to be embraced.
3. It is impossible to say exactly what the future of work holds. If we had stated a mere two months ago that the entire world economy would be at a standstill we would have been laughed at. Yet here we are today with a global economy that is for all intents and purposes shut down. As a result, many experts are currently claiming the world of work will be completely changed. Work from home scenarios will abound and telecommuting will become the new norm. But who really knows?
With such a dynamic environment, leaders need to be agile, able to change direction at a moment’s notice. The world of work is more fluid and evolving than ever before. So, if you are averse to change, you will not do well as a leader. This is not a new concept, but the pandemic has exponentially magnified the need for agility. As such, this ability should be at the heart of every future leader. Effective leaders understand they need to tap into each individual’s own self-motivation to succeed for progress to be both made and sustained.
4. Leaders must build community for their employees. Humans thrive on social connectivity; yet social connectivity looks quite different across individuals. Not only is there variability in the type of interaction desired, but the frequency and intensity vary as well. Too often this objective would be handed off to the Human Resources Department and applied in a universal code. This is not a Human Resources responsibility. This is and will be the responsibility of every leader in every organization; bringing people together to achieve a common goal.
To build community you really, really need to get to know your employees on a deeper level. What are their quirks? What are their likes? What motivates or demotivates them? What keeps them up at night? When you know your employees this well you know, as a leader, how to tailor tasks for them, what will be detrimental to productivity, and who they will work best with and how they can conquer new challenges.
I would be remiss if I did not offer some prescription for being an effective leader in the future. First, it is time to move away from a skill focus to an attribute focus. Transferable skills are critical but attributes like empathy, curiosity, imagination, intuition, and passion will be critical moving forward. These attributes will allow leaders to truly get to know their employees well in a one size fits one modality. Second, I suggest focusing on those universal truths of most followers, as presented by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie in their book “Strength Based Leadership”. Most employees thrive on trust, compassion, stability, and hope. Of these, I would argue providing hope is the most potent. To quote Nelson Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Continue to lead with hope as your compass and your team will follow.
Written By Terry Gillis
CEO of Ahria Consulting, a CPI Firm