If the pandemic taught us one truth, it is that adapting to change is the only way to survive. In the words of Peter Drucker, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic. With this wisdom in mind, today’s leaders must discard the “leadership rulebook” of the past – and replace it with a brand-new approach. Reflecting on 2020, there are ample examples of leadership traits that were, sometimes quite literally, the difference between life and death. While not all leadership decisions have such high stakes, the “new normal” demands a new leadership style irrespective of industry or rank. Below are the top leadership qualities to guide your team forward into uncertainty.
Communication and Humility
Whether you are a CEO, middle manager or team leader, it is critical to communicate honestly when you do not have all the answers. The basic human response to change is fear – and when people are afraid, they crave security. That is also why, in the pre-COVID “leadership rulebook”, leaders tended to avoid communication when they lacked clarity about the road ahead to avoid alarming their team(s). Failing that, they would pretend to have the answers even if they did not. As a result, they would often get caught out and gain a reputation for being inauthentic. In a world characterised by constant change, transparent communication and humility are non-negotiables. The importance of communicating regularly is nothing new but having the humility to admit when you do not know it all is becoming the new normal. Contrary to what we might assume, this honesty does not create more fear; instead, it builds trust and creates psychological safety, whereas half-truths and unfounded optimism cause more fear and anxiety and undermines trust. We know we will never have all the answers, but it is our jobs as leaders to remain enthusiastic about the future.
In times of uncertainty, prompt action is your best way to get more information. Leaders using the old “management rulebook” would often delay action amidst uncertainty. This approach is based on yesterday’s logic; until the situation is clearer, downplay the threat so you do not cause fear amongst the ranks. Today’s leader must overturn this outdated viewpoint because delaying action will only result in being unable to control the situation in a timely manner. For example, when the COVID-19 threat first hit South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa did not know what the future would hold. Still, this did not deter him from asking for help from medical experts, then acting swiftly and enforcing a countrywide lockdown early on. Despite lacking answers, he did not delay communicating the threat to the nation. His urgency saved countless lives, in stark contrast to a country like Italy, where a reluctance to make swift decisions – however painful they might have been to the nation – had a devastating toll.
A Juggling Act: Empowerment and AccountabilityShare the power and decision-making with your team, while still prioritising accountability. In a crisis, our human instinct is to hold on to power tightly and keep control of the situation at all costs. Quite the opposite is required in the “new normal”: it is critical to share power, ask for help, and empower your team or organisation. Alongside this, you will need to develop a change mindset, and be resilient and adaptable. In short, you can remain involved and in charge, but you do not need to make all the decisions: in its place, a shared approach of empowerment will result in swifter and better-informed decision-making. It is, however, important to remember that accountability should not fall by the wayside. It is easier said than done, but as a leader you will have to walk the line between both empowerment and accountability. Sharing accountability will also result in innovation – and give employees a sense of meaning and purpose. It is not about controlling everything; it is about being in control.
Managing Stress and Mental HealthHelp your team members manage stress by being empathetic and understanding. The pandemic has claimed so many lives and livelihoods that many employees are showing up to work while still grieving loss. The pervasive threat’s ongoing toll on mental health should not be overlooked. For this reason, the “new leader” should display empathy, sensitivity and active listening practices as far as possible. Also, in day-to-day interactions with teams, you will do well to remember that everyone deals with anxiety in a different way. Other ideas to help team members manage stress is allowing time for relaxation and meditation or facilitating flexible practices, such as the option to work from home. A safe space to talk about mental health without fear of judgement will also help team members feel less overwhelmed and more supported, which will improve team morale.