Flexible, resilient, nimble- words that were used to describe athletes in the past. Yet today, these are some key words which are becoming increasingly important leadership traits in the ‘new normal’ VUCA world we now live in. The past year brought unprecedented exposure to leaders across the world and many that emerged as successful leaders in this pandemic were those that didn’t necessarily have just the traditional leadership qualities of vision, influence and power, but rather some unique characteristics.
So what are the traits that a leader needs in this post pandemic world?
Agility and adaptability
Many companies suffered because their leaders have not been able to cope with the pace of change, the technological advancements or even the mindset shift required in the pandemic.
An obvious addition to the list of must haves are both learning agility- the ability to learn from experience- and cognitive flexibility- being able to adapt your behaviour and thinking in response to the environment. With the environment and regulatory landscape changing more rapidly than ever before, leaders needed to predict, plan and pivot to keep the business moving forward. This agility in thinking and the ability to adapt is what led fragrance and beer companies to start producing sanitizers and car manufacturers to venture into producing ventilators.
Foresight and insights
How do organisations and leaders prepare for a future that they can only guess but not predict?
The ones that are better prepared are those that have thought about what jobs will go obsolete and what new skills/roles staff will need in the future workplace. Organisations that are prepared for the future by mapping the current roles within their organisations to future state roles, and then aim to fill the skills gaps by reskilling their staff are much more able to cope with black swan events, changing market conditions and new threats to the business. The Luxembourg digital skills bridge is one example of an initiative where foresight has led to the modernisation of employee skill sets for the benefit of the companies, citizens and the country as a whole.
The best way for leaders to make more accurate decisions is to base their decisions on evidence and data as opposed to gut feel and guesswork. To name a few examples, Google used people analytics to improve their leadership development, Starbucks has used data driven decision making to pinpoint ideal store locations.
Tolerance for failure and ambiguity
Being able to anticipate problems and plan for challenging scenarios is one of the key traits of a flexible and forward looking organisation. Many leaders review future risks, conduct scenario planning exercises, and prepare for high impact, low probability situations in order to prevent failure. These are all good practices. Yet, crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic are difficult to predict and often serve as inflection points for widespread structural change. For change to take place, leaders need to foster innovation and allow experimentation. Inevitably, this trial and error method leads to increased risk of failure and failing at anything is quite uncomfortable for many risk averse leaders. However, a willingness to fail is an essential leadership trait for those organisations that want to survive and thrive in this ever changing environment as the small percentage of ideas that will succeed are likely to be the gamechangers in the organisation.
Vulnerability, trust, and empathy
Traditionally, leaders are portrayed as infallible, standing strong against all odds. The reality is that people are more willing to trust leaders that are authentic rather than hiding behind a mask. They are open and honest about their values, beliefs and mistakes. This courage to be vulnerable and connect with others through empathy are strong leadership attributes.
Jacinda Ardern, well renowned for her excellent leadership of New Zealand through the 2pandemic, is an excellent role model of these traits, and has been rewarded with some of the highest levels of confidence and trust from the public as a result.
Mental, emotional, and physical resilience
Successful leaders are used to high pressure environments and they usually get a thrill from succeeding in the face of adversity. However, when faced with multiple challenges that are not within their control over a long period of time, the pressure to perform and succeed can become draining and lead to a negative impact on the body. This is where resilience, a gratitude mindset and a focus on wellbeing become essential leadership traits, as they not only help leaders steer the organisation through a crisis but also motivate employees to follow their example and develop physical, mental and emotional resilience.
Eventually, resilient individuals and leaders build resilient organisations that are able to thrive in uncertain times.