Leadership. Whatever your chosen career, and whatever stage you are at within that career, it’s a word that will doubtless have already cropped up on many occasions. I hear people talking about it almost every day. Many have no idea whatsoever what it actually means, they’re just parroting out a definition, but that’s by the by: it’s a word we have all come across.
We are regularly told how important it is for us to show leadership qualities. Examples of inspirational leaders are thrown at us all the time. I’ve come across many good ones, across all sectors and in all types of businesses. They also exist at every level. You don’t have to be at the top of the tree to be classified as a leader.
Conversely, we have all come across people who are heading up organizations or teams who demonstrate all the leadership qualities of a lemming suffering from a particularly virulent anxiety attack. The point I make is that we learn from every leader and manager we have ever worked for: the good ones, of course, but we arguably learn more from the many bad ones out there. I know I have. No names, and all that… The lawyers all read this blog, y’know.
The current Coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to revisit the way we work. The same is true for the people who lead the organizations we work for. Or it ought to be. But how will the traditional workplace look when we eventually begin to return to what the world and his wife is calling ‘the new normal?’ It will be very different, for sure. And so it should. Former White House Chief of Staff and Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In my view it would be an opportunity missed if businesses and leaders didn’t seriously reflect and learn lessons from the way we have all been working during this period.
Part of the work I do with Managing Directors, Chief Executives and their various senior management teams is in engaging them on the question of leadership styles. There are so many different leadership qualities and attributes – dozens and dozens of them – and each one will have a strong advocate somewhere. They are all positive traits. But the assumption is that we need to be all of them. We can’t. It’s impossible. We shouldn’t even bother trying. It’ll make schizophrenic chameleons of us all. And we won’t be at all effective.
Of course, there are some common themes, some ‘must haves’, but in the main leadership should be unique to each of us. We each have our strengths and weaknesses. Too often we’re told to concentrate on the latter, of which there are probably a good number, rather than focusing on attempting to be even better at what we’re good at. Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for failure and, in any event, we’d only end up being poor clones of others. I had one particular boss who was determined that I should mirror certain leadership qualities and spent much of his time trying to force them on me. We need to move away from this whole notion of scripted leadership. It’s old hat.
I like to ask individuals to look at a list of 50-odd leadership traits and then zero in on five which they feel best embodies them. For the record mine would include humility, integrity, respect and self-awareness but, probably above all of these, I would advocate the importance of authenticity. Each of us are individuals. By all means adapt your behaviours, learn from your mistakes, be sufficiently flexible as to understand the need for different decisions and reactions in different situations with different people, but above all I believe you have to be yourself. We all act to a degree in our lives. During my career, which included 20-odd years as a Chief Executive in elite sport, I have constantly been told what kind of leader I ought to be. How I should behave. How I should dress. How I should deal with people. What I should have done differently. It does little for your self-confidence after a while. I learned how to disseminate advice, often following one of my Mum’s old sayings: ‘Don’t listen to what’s being said; listen to who is saying it.’ I made my own mistakes as a result, but I learned from them. I am far from being an exceptional leader, but I’ve done OK. And I know what my strengths and weaknesses are.
Many of the situations I found myself in were pretty alien, way beyond any comfort zone I had ever travelled to before. But in dealing with them I tried wherever I could to be myself and to be true to the values I held. I still do. It isn’t easy. I think where bosses try to force others to behave based on the leadership courses they’ve been on or the leadership books they’ve read, they’re really missing the point. Advise and support. Don’t try to control and dictate. You’re only succeeding in cloning.
And while you’re telling me how to behave, what makes you think that you’re the perfect leader anyway? Even the three people in sport whose leadership standards I aspire to attain – Arsene Wenger, Duncan Fletcher and Mike Brearley – all had their faults. The perfect leader hasn’t been born.
When leadership meets workplace culture we enter a whole new realm of possibilities, some of them frightening. I am a big believer in striving for the right culture. If the environment we are operating in is one in which we feel comfortable then we will be more productive. But achieving the ideal culture is a bit like trying to locate a tiny needle in a haystack the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. While it’s rotating. It’s a constantly evolving process.
This pandemic has seen a whole swathe of workers being asked to work from home. The businesses which come to the fore when we all go back to ‘the new normal’ (it’s grating on me, that phrase, I’ll be honest) will be those which continue to treat their workers with empathy; those which understand that each worker is an individual with their own life, their own family, their own needs, their own work/life balance. And the leaders who show the greatest empathy, recognize vulnerability in themselves and others, and who demonstrate the right level of understanding as we come out of this crisis: they will be the ones who shine and whose businesses will thrive.
We’ve all had to be more dynamic during this crisis; more flexible, more agile. I don’t see how, when this is all over, we will all suddenly want to go back to a working world that is seen as too rigid, rule-dominated or inflexible. Not everyone will have enjoyed such a prolonged spell of working from home, of course, but the majority will have settled into it quite nicely, thank you very much. They won’t all want to revert to how things were a few months ago.
One significant benefit from all this working from home is that managers and leaders are spending far more time communicating. OK, so that’s largely down to being stuck at home in a large number of cases but it has definitely improved employee engagement. How do those leaders ensure that it continues? Because it must. The more successful companies will be the ones who continue to be people centric. They will be the ones showing the interest in and awareness of the employee as a person. They will be more altruistic. They will acknowledge that every individual has their own circumstances. They won’t try to throw bureaucratic blankets over everyone if they can avoid it. They will continue to engage carefully with everyone individually.
We are seeing examples at the moment of managers still trying to micromanage the work that their teams are doing. That’s a bad enough trait when you’re in an office environment. To be trying to do so when everyone is working remotely is, frankly, ridiculous. Businesses where there exists a paralysis by meeting have simply replaced that with paralysis by Zoom, or Teams. It’s not progressive at all. Trust has to emerge as a value that a business prizes. The answer is not to try to impose technology to monitor what your employees are doing: checking up on people is not the answer other than in cases where there are genuine concerns about someone’s quality of work or productivity. Don’t assume that if you have a mechanism for checking when people log on at home and log off that you have cracked it. You haven’t. You certainly haven’t engaged with them. And you’ve probably alienated them even more. The more a business tries to control the less agile it will be as a business.
For those of us who consider ‘the traditional office’ as their workplace, it’s almost inevitable that there will be some degree of change in what that actually looks like. The opportunity to work from home, even allowing for distractions, children, Zoom-fatigue, lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues and such like, is going to be difficult to give up. No commute. No Big Brother watching over you. Far greater flexibility. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to every industry or sector but it does apply to a huge number of people. Businesses will have to look very carefully at their flexible working policies, the way they use technology, their approach to wellbeing in the workplace. Leaders will need to focus far less on process and far more on output.
For many people exposed to working from home for a prolonged period like this there will be expectations when the time comes to go back to ‘the new normal’ (that’s it: having used that phrase three times I realise that I really don’t like it…) and those expectations need to be managed. Some businesses and leaders will just pick up where they left off. Those that ruled through process and regulation will just revert to type. I do hope though, that there will be plenty of others who have had to adapt to new technology and have shown a greater interest in individuals as people who will persevere with it and try to assimilate it into the new way of working. Not to do so would, in my opinion, be an enormous opportunity missed. Be brave. It’s a great time to try to change your workplace culture. Make sure you continue to find the time for your teams and employees. Be agile. Be flexible. Be empathetic. And be yourself.