One of the many reasons I love my job is because I get to have wildly interesting conversations with smart, successful leaders about things they find challenging in their jobs. Their personalities, backgrounds, seniority, gender and geographies vary, but one thing unifies them all; they consider leading people the most important – and difficult – part of their job.
Leading people isn’t easy. How can it be? People are humans; messy, complicated, diverse, emotional creatures; with different needs, expectations, challenges, world views, hopes, fears and dreams. What motivates one, demotivates another, what makes some feel seen, makes others feel ignored. What some consider fun, others find offensive, and what makes some people grow can make other people shrink.
So how can leaders please them all? Well, they can’t. But there’s one thing they can do, which profoundly will improve their ability to lead, and that is to stop acting like a leader and instead be one. As it turns out; leaders who don’t play games and pretend they’re something they’re not, who are perceived as authentic, honest, self-aware and humble of their own shortcomings, are more trusted, easier forgiven, and to a larger extent given the benefit of the doubt, than those who put on an act. People don’t want perfection from their leaders, they want humanness. Yet, this is something we still don’t see a lot of in the corporate world.
Many leaders have told me how they started their careers with copying the leadership – or rather management – styles of their own leaders, regardless of whether they liked them or not. “I’d seen what worked for others, so then I figured it would work for me too,” a leader once told me. He has seen that those who grabbed power got power, those who spoke loudest were listened to, those who stepped on others moved up the corporate ladder the fastest, and when they arrived at the top, they acted as if the gods themselves had put them up there.
“It was the only way I knew how to be. It was the only way I’d seen,” he said. In one way being a copycat had worked out for him. It had taken him up the corporate ladder and made him a CEO. However, when he finally got to the top of the corporate hierarchy; he was miserable, his team was miserable, and needless to say, the business results were quite miserable too.
There are plenty of leaders who don’t know how to lead, only how to control the people they manage. Author Liz Ryan writes in a Forbes article that command-and-control leadership still is popular with old-fashioned, “dinosaur companies”. In spite of hurting their organizations, customers and shareholders; their leaders continue with their mantra: “it’s my way or the highway.” Maybe they don’t even know that the highway is heading in the wrong direction?
New World of Work Leadership
In The New World of Work, also referred to as the digital age, this old-fashioned way of managing people simply isn’t effective anymore. Human Capital Trends Report, Deloitte writes that the most important role of the leader in the new world of work is to build and lead teams; drive change, keep people connected and engaged, and create cultures of innovation, learning, and continuous improvement. This requires some fundamentally new skillsets for many, and Deloitte’s research show that the strongest success indicators for leaders are their willingness to learn and grow – and create organizational cultures that encourages and enables others to do the same. To achieve this, leaders need to build cultures of psychological safety and trust; where people dare to take risks and learn from mistakes. And this requires a whole new set of leadership skills for many leaders.
Feminine, Masculine and Androgynous Leaders
Lately we have been seeing a slow, but consistent, trend towards more feminine values in leadership roles. While traditional leadership have been recognized by typical masculine values like ambition, strength, power and self-confidence, research shows that leaders who are authentic, show empathy, dare to be vulnerable and genuinely care for the people they lead have greater levels of engagement, creativity and innovation and can show for significantly better business results.
The masculine/feminine values referred to here have less to do with gender and more to do with the leaders’ values and behaviors. Plenty of male leaders embrace feminine values, and many females demonstrate masculine values in their leadership roles. In a study from BI Norwegian Business School researcher Anne Grethe Solberg found that the most effective leaders are those who embrace both feminine and masculine values; referred to as the androgynous leader. Vulnerability and strength. Ambition and compassion. Empathy and self-confidence. Power and care. They are all human values.
Human Leadership in The Age of COVID-19
I recently spoke with a leader who said that the COVID-19 situation had made him reflect on his leadership style; on the mindsets and behaviors that seemed to have a positive effect on his team – and which ones that didn’t.
“I used to think that authority led to respect, and that being in control was the purpose of my job,” he told me. “Now I’ve realized that letting go of control is what I should have been doing all along. When I admitted I had no idea how to handle the new challenges that came with COVID-19; new levels of creativity and innovation started buzzing within my team. When I leaned back, they leaned forward. The more freedom I gave them, the more responsibility they took. And weirdly enough; when I started giving my authority away, the more of it I somehow seemed to gain. If I only had understood this earlier in my career,” he sighed. “That would have saved me a whole lot of work.”
I told him how thrilled I was about his change and that stories like his is what keeps me and my team inspired and passionate about what we do, as we know that for every leader who wakes up to a new way of being; the work world is getting a little bit better by the day.
These are exciting times. The New World of Work is HUMAN. And we’re all just getting started.
Annicken R. Day is the founder and CEO of Corporate Spring, a culture- and leadership firm with a purpose to contribute to a better work life for all; for the benefit of people, profit and the planet. She is also the author of the bestselling novel, Fly, Butterfly, which is about a leader who wakes up to a new way of thinking and being, and what happens when she tries to apply her new leadership philosophies in the corporate world.