If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that rapid and unpredictable change is unprecedented – as is the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented‘ I might add.
You might have heard of the nifty little acronym VUCA. It’s on steroids right now.
Responding to the pandemic, climate change, supply chain issues, hybrid and remote working, changes in the geopolitical landscape, hiring and retaining people, and the growing societal issues that are playing an important role in our work such as wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace… It’s enough for any leader to want a cup of tea and a bit of a lie down.
These are complicated issues that are interrelated.
So, what leadership qualities do we need to cultivate? What ‘leadership muscles’ do we need to build to meet these challenges? What is within our control, when so much seems like it’s not? In a nutshell, it’s how we show up as a leader.
Here are seven leadership qualities which have always been important. But now they’re crucial. While this list isn’t exhaustive and effective leadership is context-dependant, these qualities are what the latest research – and my observations as a leadership coach – see emerging as pivotal for our times.
I really can’t overstate this – trust is one of the most essential forms of capital a leader has. But did you know there are actually two types of trust?
Cognitive trust is the one we think of more commonly. It relates to capability, competence and dependability. It’s earnt when we’re transparent about our intentions, when we follow through and when we prove to be reliable.
The second is called ‘affective trust’. This one has to do with warmth, interpersonal care and emotional bonds. It’s built when we feel a leader genuinely cares about us, that they show us goodwill. One of the most powerful ways you can build affective trust is to show a little bit of vulnerability – sharing our emotions and struggles when it’s appropriate and helpful to others. The research on this is compelling when it comes to creating psychological safety and trust in teams.
- Values- and purpose-led
I’ve talked about values and purpose lots before. What’s important is not only knowing what your values are, but also turning them into observable behaviours. Values should be verbs. They also act as a compass for your decision-making. While it won’t always mean you follow the easiest path, making decisions based on your values means you’re more likely to feel comfortable with the decision you’ve made long after you’ve made it.
- Clarity in communication
I get it. Communicating clearly when you’re just trying to keep up yourself is hard! But here are what the leaders I know who are good at communicating clearly do well:
- Be transparent. Don’t pretend you have all the answers – instead simply share what you know and admit what you don’t.
- Communicate often, especially in times of crisis or big change. In those situations, it’s almost impossible to overcommunicate.
- Avoid corporate-speak and jargon. Find your own voice and say what you mean. Be real.
- Use stories and metaphor to connect. And if you’re not sure how, Jehan Cassinader is a maestro in this space.
A lot of people think empathy is a bit soft or touchy-feely – a ‘nice to have’ in business. But there’s lots of research that shows empathetic leadership drives significant positive business results like retention, innovation, engagement, motivation, performance, wellbeing, and cooperation.
My advice here is to embrace radical humility. It’s OK to not know. In fact, it’s not what you know, but what you’re willing to learn that provides the space for empathy. Secondly, embrace radical difference. Empathy doesn’t start with “I’m like you”. Rather it recognises that experiences and perspectives are different – and that engaging fully even when its uncomfortable, and practicing deep listening and curiosity, is the route to empathy.
- Listening skills
The best leaders know how to really listen. They listen to understand, not just to reply. They listen with all their senses. They give people their full attention and they ask curious, open-ended questions. They paraphrase to check for understanding. This all seems obvious, but research shows that the average person listens at only 25% efficiency.
- Think differently
Now more than ever, we need to adapt and learn new approaches to solving problems quickly. We need to think differently rather than sticking with the usual solutions or problem solving practices we’ve relied on in the past. How can you think differently? Do small experiments and pilot tests, and then review. You don’t have to go all in. Embrace diversity. Reward people for identifying problems and opportunities and generating ideas to tackle them. Ask thought-provoking questions. Look for solutions in unlikely places.
Perhaps the most powerful leadership quality, and one that underpins all the others, is courage. Courage might look like:
- Abandoning a practice that has made you successful in the past but which no longer serves you
- Uncovering your biases and then taking meaningful action
- Admitting to your team when you have made a mistake or asking for help
- Not asking others to stick their neck out or be vulnerable unless you’re willing to model that
- Choosing a strategy which is risky
- Persisting after the first failure (and the second)
- Leaning into, as opposed to avoiding, an uncomfortable conversation with compassion for everyone involved
- Making decisions based on your values, even when it’s difficult
I believe that if all leaders embraced these qualities and were purposeful in cultivating them in their leadership practices, not only would their teams benefit, but it would make what is sometimes the tough, isolating and teeth-gnashing experience of being a leader, a better and more fulfilling one. What do you think?