27 March 2023

Redefining Leadership

Redefining Leadership

By Aoife Donovan Lee, Head of Research, and Innovation at Harvest

March 2023

Leadership has changed, dramatically. Gone are the days of the callous, slave-driving, authoritarian leader who strikes fear into the entire team. People have very different expectations of leaders today, and their tolerance for anything less is waning. Individuals are demanding empathy and realistic performance expectations, as well as meaningful development opportunities or they are willing to leave the organisation altogether (McKinsey and Company, 2022).

So, what does the new way to lead look like and how should it be applied to today’s business challenges? Firstly, great leaders put significant effort into building trust, the foundation of leadership. Once you gain mutual trust, people will go above and beyond what they thought was possible (Hardy, 2023). Underlying this mutual trust is the belief that the leader, if necessary, would carry out the same task that they are asking of the individual. In the case of exceptional leaders, this is absolutely true.

Secondly, a great leader acknowledges the various challenges facing them today and adapts accordingly. They understand that these issues are a constant and they have little to no control over them (Sinek, 2013). Challenges such as advances in technology, developing new strategies to remain competitive and ahead of the curve, and keeping up with the diverse demands of a multigenerational, hybrid workforce are top of the agenda (Psychology Today, 2023; Deloitte, 2019). Building the skills and behaviours required to effectively manage these issues is secondary, however, to taking care of the conditions within the organisation and developing trust within the team (Sinek, 2013).

This article discusses ways in which great leaders are tackling some of these modern-day challenges as well as the trust-building retention activities that they engage in regularly.

Technology and Developing New Strategies

Our world, and humanity, have already experienced three industrial revolutions and are now undergoing a fourth (World Economic Forum, 2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) is our current period of industrial transformation, characterised by the rapid development and adoption of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology. With the marriage of physical assets and advanced digital technologies, we are witnessing a shift towards a more technologically connected world (Deloitte, 2019).

Deloitte’s inaugural survey evaluating organisational readiness for Industry 4.0 found that leaders who are succeeding in this era are those that understand technology can help in all areas of their businesses. Leaders, demonstrating strong strategic thinking, have built comprehensive Industry 4.0 game plans. They are innovating, growing faster, and attracting and retaining critical talent for the future. With this significant growth and change comes great responsibility. An empathetic leader recognises that, in times of transition, people need supportive, planned change programmes championed by their leaders.

Keeping Up with Workforce Demands

In order to keep up with the pace of technological change, business leaders are also placing acute focus on developing a future-fit workforce (McKinsey and Company, 2022). In acknowledging the importance of developing the skills required for the future, and fostering a culture of lifelong learning, they are also mitigating the risk of losing key talent.

Often, organisations confine development programmes to a minority of “high-performing” employees, neglecting those who are simply meeting the required standard. High-performing employees are often rewarded for appearing enthusiastic and putting in the extra hours. From observing the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, however, it is evident that many employees are no longer accepting the idea that doing more than expected is the norm. In addition, leadership development opportunities are among the most effective retention tools for both Millennials and Gen Xers (who, combined, make up approximately 70% of the global workforce).

To remain competitive and ahead of the curve, leaders should encourage all of their people to learn and expand their thinking. Great leaders genuinely believe in the capability of each of their people, as a parent would a child. They will their people to succeed (for their own good as well as that of the organisation). They support them in seeking out educational and developmental opportunities; praise and reprimand them when appropriate and build their confidence so that they can achieve more than they could ever imagine for themselves (Sinek, 2013).

Simon Sinek often talks about great leaders making the choice to put the safety of their people first. Successful leaders sacrifice their comforts so that their people remain safe. Collaboration happens when both you and your people feel a high degree of trust in one another.

So how do leaders build trust? It takes time and commitment, but it begins with avoiding telling people what to do. Good leaders know that their job is to provide the vision and the reasons why that vision is so powerful. They provide specific success criteria and then they empower their people to self-lead. Dr Benjamin Hardy (2023) advises leaders to “give your people the what and the why but not the how.” Taking consistent action, like this, and allowing others the autonomy to think for themselves, builds trust.

Great leaders invest time in listening to their team members. People need to feel heard, and valued and that their contributions count. People will engage when they receive this gift of listening. They will be more likely to get behind the team and the organisation’s mission because they trust in their leader and the direction they are taking them in. They do this because they know that their leader would do it for them.

Conclusions and Key Take Aways

“The companies that will excel long-term are the ones that know it’s not just about shareholder value. It’s also about focusing on the customer and employee experience, and how those, in turn, contribute to society. How you fuel this whole ecosystem is critical to success across all industries.” (Sarah Kennedy, Vice President, Global Marketing, Adobe Experience Cloud, 2019).

Leaders in organisations today face a diverse range of issues, not seen before in our lifetime. Issues that remain a constant but are outside of their control. What they can control, however, is the tone they set within their organisation. Moving away from the old hierarchical leadership model and toward a people-centric approach is the new way to lead.

McKinsey and Company’s ‘Great Attrition, Great Attraction’ survey (2022) tells us that the top three reasons US employees leave their jobs without another job in hand are:

  1. Uncaring leaders
  2. Unsustainable work performance expectations
  3. Lack of career development and advancement potential

Going first, serving, listening, empathising, fostering a culture of lifelong learning, demonstrating transparency, and building future-proof strategies coupled with supporting others through change are smart strategies for retaining and attracting great people. When these needs are satisfied, people naturally want to do everything they can to see their leader’s vision come to life and remain loyal to their organisation.

Leaders who invest time in communicating with and listening to their employees reap the rewards of a trustful partnership. Employees who have regular performance-related conversations and are clear on what is expected of them are comfortable communicating with their leader when they believe they are falling short of these expectations. They know that they have a supportive leader with whom they can discuss these challenges.

Finally, leaders who truly believe in the capability of all of their people will win their hearts and minds. Offering educational and developmental opportunities to all direct reports, not just the star performers, will contribute to a happier, more engaged workforce. These dedicated people are precious and, especially in today’s employee market, they should be treated as such.