By Inspire Group
Let’s start by stating the obvious: 2020 has so far been a year of great challenge and disruption. And the implications of this on almost every area of our lives have been felt widely; not least in our roles, workplaces and on how we lead ourselves and others.
The phrase ‘new normal’ has been overused far too many times (and that is definitely the last time you will see it in this article), but there has been a shift, or more precisely a jolt, to a new way of working.
So how has this changed the priorities for leadership? What are the core leadership traits we should hold onto during this time of transition? What are the new ones that we must rapidly cultivate, as we transcend from a crisis management mindset to a more creative and innovative one to survive the brutal short-term challenges ahead in order to thrive in the long run?
I am writing this from home in Wellington, New Zealand. Like everyone, Inspire Group has had to quickly adapt to working virtually – whether in our Malaysia, New Zealand or Australia offices. Yet in talking with dozens of our clients and partners across Malaysia during MCO, the overwhelming opinion I heard was that change in workplace and working rhythm had brought many unexpected benefits.
So, as a first observation – let’s not lose the things that were actually better during those surreal times of MCO and lockdown. As we transition into a hybrid way of working (home and office), take the time to consider as a leader what you may have actually been doing better during that time (and retain it), but also look at what you and your team missed about the collaboration, connection and innovation that comes from being together in the office. In other words, be careful that the short-term gains in productivity from being focused and isolated at home are not at the expense of longer-term gains in team progress and development. I can already see this playing out in some organisations, and it is definitely one to watch carefully!
Being here in New Zealand currently, it has also been interesting to carefully follow New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. And certainly, New Zealand is fortunate in these times to be a remote island in the South Pacific.But what has caught people’s attention is the ‘Kiwi’ approach to leadership in a crisis, so professionally exemplified by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
This is an approach based on empathy and clarity. But also simplicity.
Because, no matter what certain supposed experts will tell you, the essence of great leadership can be hugely simplified. At Inspire Group, we define great leadership as a Way of Being: the ability to Direct and Inspire, and it’s actually an integral part of being an effective leader and influencing others, particularly in times of crisis and change.So, what can we all learn from this? What does it mean for the leadership style now required as we move into the second and very unknown part of 2020? And how can we shape and develop those skills ourselves – and quickly?
A better way is now needed
Over the past 25 years, I’ve certainly sat through my fair share of ‘transformational leadership programmes’, digested content and tools, had ‘life changing’ insights and yet somehow not embedded these ‘wonderful’ techniques into our real world. Like many people, I have also had times where I have blindly struggled on with the debilitating belief that the more senior we get, the more we had to do.
So, how about we now shift our focus to the ways and beliefs of leading through reflection, stories, practice and focus on the ‘self’, and away from the mechanics of management? In other words…
If leadership used to be about knowing more, is it now more about asking more?
If it was never really about just doing more, was it actually about BEING more?
Think about this. Now think of the most inspiring leader you’ve encountered.
What made them distinct and different?
You’ll recall the great things they ‘did’; the ‘way’ they did it: there was clarity, coherence and authenticity. But, it was how they made you feel that really set them apart.
Still not convinced? Well, think for a moment about the worst job and the worst leader you’ve experienced. And your life at that time; how you felt, and how it impacted the people and parts of your life well away from work.
So what has the biggest influence on your work experience? The leadership you experience, and practice.
Whether we like it or not, one of the biggest impacts on our health, happiness and wellbeing is where many of us will spend around 10,000 days of our lives: work.
Yes, the impact and reach of leadership is huge. So, what do we need to do about it right now to provide the leadership needed in the uncertain months ahead?
Is there ever a right time?
As you think about how to navigate the changing world as a leader – and how you equip yourself and your team with the skills and mindset now needed – it’s important to first understand one important thing.
Most so-called leadership development is unnecessarily complicated, and doesn’t make a real impact where it needs to – on the lives of the leaders themselves and those around them.
Right now, within any organisation and individual, time and money is limited. On one hand, it seems too difficult to free up the time or resource for this right now – after all, it’s much more about day to day survival isn’t it? But. Pause and think for a moment.
How are you doing? No, really? How are your team members coping?
And do you really have the leadership mindsets, skillsets and energy to navigate the uncertainties of whatever 2020 still has in sore?
Because it’s a fact that the companies that invest in the right development in times of crisis recover quicker.
And the key phrase here is the right development.
So, before you embark on any form of leadership development, you really should understand the four most important factors that make it effective:
- Context is key: Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another.
- Keep it real: tie leadership development to real on the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning.
- Mindset first: Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour, but this also means adjusting underlying mindsets, too.
- Measure results: When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that these initiatives won’t be taken seriously.
And if I had to choose just one? It would be to focus on context, and making sure that whatever you are doing to develop yourself as a leader, and those around you, it is relevant to your current challenges and culture.
So, what can I do today?
Having worked in leadership roles in many different countries, and now in leadership development across many different locations, cultures and environments, I have been asked this question a lot over the past few months. What are the approaches and mindsets leaders need to develop in times of change and crisis to best support those around them?
Here are a few low-cost but high-impact ideas well worth considering…
- Embrace imposter syndrome: I’ve really struggled with this over the years – and even last week was convinced I’d get ‘found out’ at a webinar. But here’s the thing – we ALL have this to some degree, and it’s a perfectly natural (and perhaps essential) aspect of wanting to strive, perform and develop. And, as we learn best when outside our comfort zone, we’re pretty much stuck with it. So, gamify it: ‘yes, got away with it again – ha!’
- Whether you think you can, or can’t – you’re probably right: Not my quote (but I wish it was), but actually from Henry Ford. Who we also have to thank for the idea that the working day should be 8 hours. But that’s another story; and speaking of which…
- Learn how you learn: We are all being bombarded with advice (including this article!) on the ONE thing/book/podcast that you simply must do to adapt. Don’t force it – if books aren’t your thing (and they weren’t mine for years – I barely struggled through a book a year), simply find your thing. And that may be as simple as having a great mentor, friend, or coach that you can turn to. Now more than ever, we need that support network.
- Do what needs to be done: Great leaders see opportunity, step up and take the lead when that action is needed. Don’t wait for someone else to do it (they probably won’t) or hold back because you think you’re not good enough (you are). The leaders that make the bold moves in the coming months will be the ones that make the impact.
- Watch and listen carefully: There are two really important aspects to this. Firstly, learn quickly to ‘read the terrain’. Your effectiveness as a leader in a crisis rapidly accelerates when you can adapt your style and communication to those around you. Secondly, become a master of observation. Watch and listen to other leaders you encounter, navigating the twists and turns of our changing world – good and bad. Use and adapt their phrases (the good ones, that is!) and make them your own. It’s what we all do.
- Scan the horizon: A great leader can describe the future with as much clarity and conviction as others describe the past. Do not assume that someone else is looking ahead to see the opportunities and challenges that await your team and environment in whatever 2020 and beyond has in store for us. Be constantly scanning ahead – days, weeks, months. And do this through…
- Make time to think: When I stepped up into my first ‘big’ leadership role in the non-profit sector, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful, kind and inspiring Chair. Sadly, he’s no longer around, but his advice guides me daily. Particularly this gem: ‘James, my dream is that one day I will visit your office and find you with your feet up, gazing out of the window. I’ll ask you what you are doing, and you will simply reply: I’m thinking.’ As a leader, you have to take the time to think. And this means delegating, and taking on less yourself. That ‘stuff’ is not yours anymore. Remember what I said about working at home giving time and space to focus, reflect and plan? This is that moment.
- Have counterbalance and be proud: True work/life balance is a myth. It’s a shifting balance, just like riding a bike – where you are constantly making adjustments to your balance (often without even knowing it) to stay upright and to keep moving forward. This is how it really is. So, keep checking your momentum, and making those counterbalances. We have the best opportunity in a generation to design this balance for ourselves now as we transition back into hybrid working models – but the window is closing fast!
- Consult, but it’s not a democracy: Some great coaching advice I had early on was to consult widely, and then take bold action – being at peace with the fact that some people will not like what you are doing, or agree with it. You are the leader. So, lead. And don’t delay: a day is a lifetime right now!
- And finally, think impact not effort. It may be true that ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, but I’ve learnt the hard way that it is impact, not effort that really matters. If you can achieve the same results, or better, and have more time and energy to do the (other) things you love, that is how we can all emerge stronger!
Because, after all, that’s what really matters.