Creating The Future Of Work: 10 Leadership Strategies For The Greatest Impact
We’re experiencing what could be the most significant reinvention of work in our time. Leaders will have an unprecedented opportunity to reexamine, redefine and reimagine the nature of our work, the way they engage people and how companies function.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created hard and unusual times, and as we get back to work, things will be different. As a result, brilliant leadership is especially important now as well as in the future. In addition, it’s likely the worst leaders will be weeded out. There just isn’t room for the mediocre in cataclysmic circumstances. Great leaders will come to the fore and the recognition they receive and results they drive will influence other leaders in turn.
How can leaders lead most effectively and what will great leadership look like in this extraordinary time? Here’s what that great leadership must include:
Great leaders give hope, purpose and meaning. You’ve heard it before, great leaders paint a vision of what the future will hold and motivate you to be part of it. These are times when the future is hard to predict—which makes an optimistic leader even more important. Great leaders reinforce what they know—core competencies and company values, and reassurance the organization will succeed (when this is true). Effective leaders are forward-leaning and inspire people based on the power of a compelling future.
Great leaders are clear about reality. A mentor during the first years of my career, Dr. Carl Frost of Michigan State University, used to say the best leaders “tell people what day it is.” He meant they paint a picture of reality—and let people know about the business environment, the competitive climate and what is necessary to accomplish results. Similarly, personal resilience—so critical today—requires a firm understanding of what’s really going on. We must know where we are to conceive of how we’ll get to the other side. Great leaders don’t sugarcoat the truth and they don’t motivate by fear. They stay calm in the face of chaos. They balance being realistic with providing hope for the future. People can’t do their best or make good decisions if they don’t have clarity—and effective leaders ensure people are in the know.
Great leaders are present, visible, and authentic. Leadership must be accessible and available. These are tough circumstances in which information (and misinformation) can become overwhelming. People look to leaders and companies as a source of truth. There is so much swirl, employees depend on leaders to put information in context and make sense of a confusing environment, and what it means for their company. Leaders don’t have to have all the answers and admitting this can increase trust. People know leaders don’t have crystal balls, but they want to hear from them regularly and be reassured they are paying attention to where the company is going and how things may take shape over time. This type of openness and accessibility helps build a sense of predictability, reassurance and safety.
Great leaders demonstrate they care. People are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and fear. Leaders can make a positive difference by showing empathy and letting people know they are tuned in and compassionate. Checking in and communicating appreciation for employees as whole people—with plenty of challenges and stressors—matters to keeping people motivated and engaged, and giving them a sense of psychological safety. Give people space to work through difficulties and take the time they need to care for themselves and their families through these difficult times.
Great leaders provide challenge, empowerment and accountability. While leaders must give people room to work through challenges, they must also hold people accountable. Performance is obviously necessary for companies to succeed, but it is also critical for employees to achieve and feel valued. People need to feel like their work matters and makes a difference. They will engage more fully when they have a sense of ownership. People crave new challenges and empowerment to make their own decisions within appropriate boundaries. A great leader I worked with used to say he was a “plow.” His metaphor was mundane, but its meaning was impactful. He was committed to removing barriers, so his team members could succeed. He was also willing to stand by team members if they failed. He realized risk taking involved—well, risks—and he would go to the wall for his staff if they had a misstep.
Great leaders provide opportunities. People are most effective when—as much as possible—their talents are aligned with their roles. Of course, no job is in perfect sync with people’s desires and there are always aspects of a job that aren’t as rewarding. But terrific leadership is able to match people’s skills as much as possible to their current roles, while also allowing people the flexibility to create their own path. The pandemic has created turmoil in the job market and in “swim lanes”—standard divisions of work—within organizations. This dis-order can be a gateway to new definitions of jobs and career pathways. Great leaders will leverage this ambiguity to provide new opportunities for people and companies.
Great leaders are advocates for their employees and their teams. The best leaders surround themselves with people who have tremendous talent and they aren’t afraid of being outshone by team members with strong capabilities. In addition, they highlight their teams. One of the best leaders I had was constantly putting her team members forward. She knew her success wasn’t about her, it was about the success of her team. She made a point of recognizing, advocating and helping people build their networks. She created the conditions for her employees to receive plenty of recognition, respect and positive regard across the organization. This contributed to their sense of value and esteem, and their career growth.
Great leaders bring people together. One of our core needs is to feel a sense of belonging. Especially in hard times, the human instinct is to pull together and find safety in numbers (this was reinforced in a recent paper developed by Ludwigs-Maximilians Universitaet). I once had a toxic leader who introduced division and conflict within the team. He believed his position would be stronger if people distrusted each other. The opposite is actually true. A strong team with high levels of trust and psychological safety is one in which people will stretch, innovate and provide their best effort—in addition to feeling a rewarding common bond and shared purpose. Effective leaders demand constructive behavior and do not tolerate toxicity.
Great leaders make tough decisions. Leadership is rarely easy and sometimes it involves tough decisions to manage those who aren’t performing or to furlough high-performing staff members because of market conditions or business requirements. While these can be gut-wrenching decisions, they are also necessary sometimes and good leaders don’t shrink from difficult circumstances. Their actions are most effective when based on solid information, strong positive values and delivered with compassion.
Great leaders model the way. People can tend to over-focus on leaders—looking to them for cues about how things are going, what might be next and the extent to which employees are valued. Even when a leader doesn’t realize it, employees may be hanging on their words or their actions. Effective leaders recognize everything counts. They are conscious and conscientious about their words and behaviors, knowing the laser focus people put on them, especially in challenging times.
With so many things to keep in mind, it may feel like leaders must walk on water or move mountains. Of course, great leaders strive to be as effective as possible, but they aren’t perfect and they admit their mistakes. They don’t need a list of characteristics, and they don’t consult a pocket-card of positive behaviors for their next move. They get the gist and embrace the right mindset, honing their skills to be better all the time. They start with integrity and an overall orientation that values both people and results—and this is their true north.
Times like these provide opportunities for leaders to create new, revitalized work experiences. Leaders must provide a clear sense of reality, and offer hope. They must be present and visible, and empathetic and caring. Leaders must provide for empowerment and growth opportunities, advocating for their people and bringing their teams together. In difficult times, leaders must make tough decisions with compassion and model the way—knowing employees are taking cues from their behaviors and reactions. The importance of leadership in tough times is significant, but those who are up for the challenge will have an incredible opportunity to reimagine a bright new future of work.
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