Leadership for a new business landscape

The key to a modern agile leadership model is demonstrating ‘smart choices’ that employees will want to emulate, says Janine Woodcock

With the overarching aim of an MBA being to teach students how to effectively manage a company, it’s natural that strategies and tactics of modern leadership come high on the agenda. Regardless of how a business operates, leadership directly impacts every element, with strong leadership driving productivity and weak leadership jeopardising position and potential.

An enduring challenge to leadership practice is that it must evolve and adapt to the ever changing business landscape. The dynamic nature of leadership methods can be extremely exciting and when executed correctly, represent a win for everyone involved; the company, the teams with whom leaders work, and the individual leaders themselves.

Leadership is a combination of many different attributes, and which of these are most appropriate will fluctuate depending on any number of variables. An organisation’s internal culture is developed by founders, past leaders, history, successes and crises, often resulting in long held customs that can be challenging for incoming leaders to influence.  Further, when considering appropriate strategies, thought must be given to factors like team demographics, staff characteristics, cultural considerations in-country and the impact of emerging technologies.

This complex maze is why the modern C-suite is increasingly turning its back on traditional leadership approaches in favour of flexible modern paradigms.

Letting go of control

Many corporate structures have evolved from a ‘command and control’ stable of thinking. In this traditional leadership model, big decisions are taken within hierarchical boundaries with those lower down waiting for instruction. Those in senior positions who attempt ‘control’ inevitably feel overwhelmed very quickly, while juniors feel disengaged and undervalued. Despite the need to control being a primal drive, the ‘command and control’ leadership approach is thankfully losing its relevance as the business landscape grows increasingly complex, and millennial and Generation Z team members in particular demand more flexible, collaborative frameworks. As David Marquet, author of Turn The Ship Around says, “if you want people to think, give them intent not instructions”.

That said, a leader may be required to be both operational and inspirational at different times. In these cases, certain elements of ‘command and control’ may be appropriate if used tactically.

The duality of leadership

Consider the ‘manager versus leader’ paradigm. These terms are often used interchangeably and – particularly in smaller organisations – often one individual serves both functions. Whether someone is operating as a manager or a leader can be critiqued through the lenses of active responsibilities and correlating behavioural traits.

A manager is characterised by a practical need to oversee and have accountability for a specific area of the business – which brings a need for some control. A modern leader pays attention to how they influence an organisation’s culture. Both need to show up in a way that encourages and empowers their teams, however a manager’s responsibilities are primarily functional; focused on ‘the doing’. A leader’s objective is to represent and foster a clear company culture; focused on ‘the being’. 

The good news for individuals holding the mantle of both manager and leader is that the following approach is useful to both. Executive coaches often hear this refrain from their clients: ‘I treat my employees the way I would like to be treated.’ While on the surface this appears reasonable, it can be problematic in that the personality traits of ambitious people who rise to leadership positions may not reflect those of their wider team. For example, if a self-confident leader doesn’t require recognition to maintain motivation, they may miss the signals that their workforce requires nurturing.

Enter emotional intelligence. Most people think emotional intelligence is the ability to communicate empathetically with other people, and to an extent that’s true. However, truly effective emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness. Many individuals who’d rate highly on an emotional intelligence scale when dealing with others are actually highly self-critical. This disapproving internal dialogue unbalances their ability to empathise objectively. True emotional intelligence – the kind that makes leaders great – is firmly rooted in a realistic sense of self; continually revisited, acknowledged and interrogated for improvement.

A new leadership paradigm

What does the future hold for leadership? While new paradigms fostered by tech and media behemoths are ushering in a cultural renaissance, without continued holistic reviews they may fall victim to the same pitfalls experienced by the models they have revolutionised.

Take Netflix, which claims to “hire, reward and tolerate only fully formed adults” with the business eschewing traditional frameworks like managed annual leave and systems of hierarchy. It’s core philosophy of people over process challenges our traditional understanding of leadership, with much hinging on bulls-eye recruitment.

To date this model has proven extremely successful with ambitious individuals flocking to be part of a corporate culture that puts freedom and responsibility at its heart. A ‘positive problem’ that may eventuate from this approach is that, without regular introspection, a workforce full of highly ambitious, driven individuals, may create an unsustainable set of high expectations and cultural behaviours.

The link between organisational habits and success

The Neuro Leadership Institute defines culture as ‘shared everyday habits’ and while many leaders have a clear set of values around how they plan to lead, the essential (and often missing) step is ensuring they’re leading by example. A quote by which to live is from a research professor at the University of Houston, Brené Brown PhD, who says: ‘Who you are is how you lead.’

Even if a company officially encourages work/life balance, driven employees will always mimic the behaviours of the most senior within any organisation. If those behaviours are ‘stay late’ and ‘work through lunch’, the subtext is that it’s those behaviours that got the leaders to where they are. Without regular critique and inspection, habits which are highly beneficial in the short term have the potential to become unsustainable and a threat to overall business longevity in the long term.  

Staff wellbeing is a key concern for leaders. Many large corporates use the Mercer Wellbeing Framework to inform wellbeing strategies. Mercer categorises employees into four segments; the well, the at risk, the ill and the long term disabled. Leaders will rightly focus strategies and effort on helping the ‘at risk’. However, ‘the well’ may be ignored. Mercer defines ‘well’ as “no health or risk factors; normal productivity”. However, as leaders it’s vital to look within this ‘well’ segment to those people who have higher than normal productivity; the star performers. Leaders love this group as their discretionary effort is so high; they contribute significantly to success. While these individuals may be delivering great business value, they also need to develop skills in managing themselves and their counterparts. Where new leadership models remove standardised processes like performance reviews, the ability to identify how best to sustain high performers may come under challenge.

Driven individuals, addicted to a mental state where they feel they can endlessly push on, must learn how to make better choices about where to expend their valuable energy. They must learn to identify where best to incorporate activities that nourish this energy, to sustain their success for the long term, rather than potentially slipping into the ‘at risk’ category through burnout. Making smarter choices enables driven leaders and employees alike to think more clearly, have more energy and demonstrate more emotional intelligence. These habits will contribute greatly to business success over the long term.

Janine Woodcock is an internationally experienced executive coach, business mentor, non- executive director, speaker and author. A Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management, Janine’s first book The Power of Choices™, 7 Steps to Smarter Decisions About Work, Life and Success is available now.

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