With a shifting work environment; health, social and economic change, and an overarching veil of uncertainty, some leaders have thrived, while others have struggled. Working with leadership teams we have observed five leadership traits common to, and demonstrated by, leaders that have best adapted to the changed organisational environment:
Flexibly and adaptability have long been important, but it is this capacity to think and act quickly and clearly - agility - that sets the standouts apart. Successful leaders are those who constantly and continually shift their thinking as the situation requires.
The ability of a leader to recognise others’ emotions has become increasing important as people have been subjected to multiple kinds of stress, and without the outlets of a pre-pandemic working environment. The most effective leaders are those who go beyond merely considering others’ thoughts and emotions and directly engage with them; enquiring about concerns and listening to responses. This contributes to strengthening relationships and organisational culture.
The ability to take oneself above the mass of noise, information and conflicting signals, and identify themes is vital. Successful leaders are able to make critical decisions, communicate to others and execute with a level of clarity even in noise-filled environments.
The workplace has changed; not only the physical and locational aspects, but also increased democratisation and development of more cross-generational and hybrid teams. The successful leader harnesses the benefits of this new environment rather than pushing back against the challenges and seeking a return to the past.
A decade ago leaders needed to embrace technology, pre COVID it was about the development of digital strategies; but we would contend that it is now not about a ‘thing’ (technology, digital) but rather a way of operating. It is the capacity to re-examine the entire way of doing business; where the value is and what processes are needed to unlock the value. This is frontier thinking.
Our other key observation is that the presence of these leadership traits across the broader leadership team (and not just the single, pre-eminent leader) has been essential to pandemic leadership success. As noted by Shermara Wikramanayake, CEO of Macquarie Group and one of Australia’s most successful CEOs, "it's not just about me sitting here like Mr Burns in his little office in The Simpsons making up all the plans for the nuclear plant". A collective and consistent leadership approach has been vital.
A company Chairman was recently heard to remark about leadership in the pandemic era: “everything has changed and nothing’s changed”. Perhaps then we should look to Socrates for our final inspiration: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” The most successful leaders of the past two years have recognised a need to change; looking forward rather than back.