Top leadership traits to suit the new normal

The standout performance of female leaders in 2020 has led some commentators to suggest that women are well-suited to leadership roles in the current environment.

What traits do leaders need as we adjust to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic?

At a glance

  • The style of leadership required during a phase of recovery is one that is more consultative and that aims to help people thrive.
  • The challenges imposed by the current environment call for leadership attributes such as empathy, collaboration, flexibility and good listening skills.
  • Demonstrating a sense of purpose is also important, especially in times of uncertainty.

In the initial stages of a crisis, it is often directive leaders who come to the fore – those top-down leaders who tell others what to do, says leadership expert Fiona Robertson.

The recovery phase requires a different style of leadership – one that is more consultative, Robertson says.

“The biggest shift that is required is for leaders to prioritise their ‘people work’ to ensure that they’re creating an environment where others can thrive,” she says.

Is the future female?

The standout performance of female world leaders in 2020 has led some commentators to suggest that women are well-suited to leadership roles in the current environment.

“Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility” are some of the common features attributed to the female leaders of countries that have managed the COVID-19 pandemic well, such as Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, write Concordia University academics Louise Champoux-Paillé and Anne-Marie Croteau in The Conversation.

Champoux-Paillé and Croteau argue that the challenges of the 21st century require a style of leadership that – in addition to the common features they identified in female leaders – involves courage, flexibility, good listening skills, empathy, collaboration, caring and recognition of collective contribution – values that are stereotypically feminine.

An article published in the Harvard Business Review titled “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women” enumerates a list of traits that the authors, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop, believe belong to a definitively “feminine” style of leadership, such as knowing your limitations, putting others ahead of yourself and humility.

“The biggest shift that is required is for leaders to prioritise their ‘people work’ to ensure that they’re creating an environment where others can thrive.” Fiona Robertson, culture change and leadership expert

“Not all women are humble, of course, but selecting leaders based on humility would result in more female than male leaders,” they write, noting that “perhaps the issue is not that men are unwilling or unable to display it, but that we dismiss them for leadership roles when they do”.

Regardless of their gender, a leader who possesses humility listens to others and is not afraid to ask for assistance or advice.

“One person can’t know everything,” says Megumi Miki, founder of the Quietly Powerful leadership movement. When circumstances are constantly changing, she says, the ability to call on the expertise of others is an advantage.

Another valuable characteristic in the current context is empathy as opposed to being commanding. “Twenty-first century leadership demands that leaders establish an emotional connection with their followers,” write Chamorro-Premuzic and Gallop. “So long as we have humans at work, they will crave the validation, appreciation and empathy that only humans – not machines – can provide.”

Looking for more on this topic? Former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, is speaking on “Shift the dial on leadership” at this year’s Virtual Congress 2021. It’s happening soon on 20-22 October - find out more here.

The rise of emotional intelligence

Robertson believes that, today, emotional intelligence is “far more important than any kind of technical skill”.

“The brain is a threat-detection, pattern-recognition machine,” she explains. “Every brain on planet Earth is on high alert at the moment.” As a result, “everybody’s adrenal system is overloaded right now”, creating “a perfect storm of overwhelm” that leaders must manage.

Emotional intelligence requires exceptional listening skills, says Robertson. Leaders must “listen for meaning and the implications of what’s being said, not just for the facts”, and respond appropriately.

CPA Library resource: Complex adaptive leadership: embracing paradox and uncertainty. Read now.

Adapting to a remote environment

Managing a remote team comes with its own set of challenges. For one, the human brain is not designed to conduct relationships via screens, says Robertson.

When we interact in person, the subconscious is constantly working on analysing physical signals such as pulse and “micro-expressions” that it can’t detect via a screen, she says. On a video call, “the conscious mind has to work 10 times harder, which is one of the reasons why endless Zoom meetings are exhausting”.

Another key strength leaders require in a post-COVID-19 environment is adaptability. New workplace policies and practices won’t suit everyone, says Miki. Some employees who are newly working from home appreciate the social interaction of regular check-ins.

Others, like Miki, prefer to work uninterrupted by video calls. “I’m much more productive if I’m left alone for a good stretch of time, so that I can do deep thinking and deep work,” she says. “Adjusting from individual to individual is important, otherwise, you won’t get the best out of people.”

The “quietly powerful” leaders that Miki writes about exhibit a sense of purpose, an attribute that is essential when navigating a team or an organisation through an uncertain period.

Many are “reluctant leaders” who decided to lead because they felt like they could contribute to something bigger than themselves, Miki says. “There’s a real sense of purpose – it’s really not about them.” This type of purposeful leader can have a unifying effect on a team, creating a valuable sense of inclusivity during a period of adversity.

“This pandemic is not going to go down in history as a health challenge, it’s going to go down in history as a leadership challenge,” Robertson says. This is why, so far, it’s the empathetic and emotionally intelligent leaders who are proving the most effective.

December/January 2022
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December/January 2022
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