Now is a period of fundamental shifts in multiple parts of our lives—brought about by the events and complexities of the last couple years. Likewise, leadership must shift—in terms of mindset and capabilities.
Leaders have tremendous influence on employees’ experiences, talent retention and company cultures. In short, leaders have the power to make people’s lives terrific or terrible, so great leadership is certainly something to strive for, and to celebrate when leaders succeed.
Like the changing landscape, leadership must expand, evolve and advance. Times have changed and businesses and people must adapt. The competencies that got leaders here, won’t get them there. New capabilities will be critical for the future of work.
#1 – From Engaging People to Inspiring Them
Engagement has been the name of the game for a decade (or more). It is indeed a gold standard, because when employees are engaged, they give discretionary effort. In addition, research has demonstrated a correlation between engagement and important outcomes like customer satisfaction, shareholder value and employee retention. All good things.
But the last two years have caused a fundamental reckoning related to work. People are reconsidering why they work, the kind of work they do, for whom they work, with whom they work and how they work. All of this has made engagement more challenging. And it may not be enough.
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Engagement suggests interest, dedication and energy in working, but leaders also now need to go further. They need to inspire people toward greater purposes for their work and toward a clear linkage between an individual’s work and their impact on their team, their organization and the customer. Leaders aren’t solely responsible for employee motivation, but they can create the conditions for it to flourish.
Beyond engagement, inspiration suggests a commitment of both the head and the heart. Not just wanting to do good work, but craving to contribute and to matter. It is related to a high level of stimulation that leads to creativity, new ways of thinking and innovative solutions.
Engagement is essential, but inspiration goes further—fostering commitment, stimulating great work and motivating both innovation and action.
#2 – From Certainty to Clarity
People are experiencing overload based on the amount of information coming at them all the time from multiple sources. And the information deluge can result in overwhelm which can be exhausting, disorienting and demotivating.
People naturally prefer more predictability and tend to avoid uncertainty. And in the midst of the overwhelm, many are turning to leaders as a single source of truth. They want to know what’s real, what to pay attention to and what it means for their job, their company and their future.
With this heavy reliance, leaders may be inclined to provide certainty—and this may have been their modus operandi in the past. But leaders must avoid making promises they can’t keep or framing their best guesses as sure bets.
Instead, leaders must learn to be clear, even when they can’t be certain. They need to cultivate transparency by sharing what they know and being honest about what they don’t. They need to let people know about the questions they’re asking and how they’re seeking to answer them. They need to reinforce the direction they’re headed, even when they can’t be sure about the path they will take. They need to be comfortable being directionally correct while they may be specifically wrong sometimes. They need to admit mistakes, reinforce learning and create a vision for the future, even when the pathway isn’t perfectly known. They need to create confidence about the destination and remind people about the organization’s ability to get there.
It’s like the headlights on your car when you’re driving on a dark night: They won’t shine all the way to your final destination, but they will get you there 350 feet at a time—like the power of a clear goal even when a certain path isn’t possible.
#3 – From Tolerating Ambiguity to Embracing It
The future of work will be faster and more ambiguous than it has been in the past. The world is moving at higher speeds because of the exponential effects of technology, making predictions harder—and the future therefore more uncertain. In addition, the interrelationships among all kinds of global systems—economic, climate, social, transportation, health to name a few—make for more complexity and therefore less predictability and greater uncertainty.
Leaders will need to learn to deal with greater ambiguity and stay confident, moving forward despite not having all the answers. This ability to discern when and whether to move forward in the absence of perfect information has always been a trait of great leaders, but it is more important now because the number of times action will be necessary without the benefit of full information will be more frequent.
In addition, opportunities for innovation are greater when less is known (“at the edges”). Once the landscape is well-understood and well-mapped, new solutions become less necessary. Problems are more likely to have been solved. But when situations are uncertain, there is room for new models for value, new approaches to user experiences and new moments to differentiate products or services.
All of this means leaders must learn to embrace ambiguity, not simply tolerate it.
#4 – From Caring To Empathy And Compassion
Most leaders care about their team members, but empathy takes caring to another level and it contributes to organizational results. Great leaders demonstrate empathy because it’s the right thing to do for people, but research has also proven its links with improved innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, work-life and even mental health.
Empathy is a deep sense of respect for where people are coming from—with consideration for what they could be thinking (cognitive empathy) as well as what they could be feeling (emotional empathy). Empathy and compassion are linked through action. True empathy and compassion motivate decisions and deeds. A leader empathizes with an employee who has a hard time getting things done at home with small children, and allows for flexible working hours. Or a leader understands the challenges an employee is having with a tough customer and offers to spend time coaching, guiding and advocating for the employee. Or a leader is tuned into the difficulties of a new employee finding their way around the culture, and assigns a peer buddy who can help pave the way for success.
Caring is good—and it is fundamental to a positive culture and working relationships, but when leaders can invest in empathizing and deeply considering an employee’s unique circumstances, challenges and needs, they take leadership to a better level for not only attraction and retention, but inspiration and development.
#5 – From Networking To Rapport And Relationships
Networking is important and everyone knows it’s the power of the network which helps you get the next job, grow your success and advance your career. But networking can be superficial at best and slimy at worst. Too often, the next LinkedIn connection or the additional contact in the virtual Rolodex is nothing more than a numbers game.
The alternative is developing real, authentic relationships and building rapport over time. Leaders need strong networks, but the linkages must be based on appreciation for others and valuing all they can learn from others and in turn, provide to others.
Leaders must learn to build trust, ensure continuity of relationships over time and build team relationships through proximity (real or virtual), mutual goals and shared effort. The main reason people leave their roles is because of leaders—not feeling aligned with leaders, valued by leaders or inspired by leaders. On the other hand, when leaders build strong relationships with employees and foster positive connections among team members, they enhance not only retention, but inspiration, productivity and fulfillment.
Going forward, it won’t be enough to simply count contacts. Leaders will need to foster depth and meaning in relationships.
Leadership is really tough. And it has only gotten harder in the last two years. Uncertainty, difficulty and fundamental shifts have made it one of the most difficult jobs—but also one of the most impactful. Leaders who make the shifts will succeed themselves, but also help their employees, teams and organizations succeed as well.