New Year, New Way to Lead

Rachael Brassey

By Rachael Brassey

We’ve all heard and scoffed at the phrase ‘new year, new you’. But what does this “amusing” adage really mean? It’s about reimagining the way things are, striving for progress, and setting new goals. The likelihood of success relies on a realistic plan to set out the required actions – resolutions, if you will.

Studies suggest that after six months, over half of people give up on their well-intentioned resolutions. Some of the causes of failure include setting unrealistic targets, not tracking progress, and becoming overwhelmed by too many goals. As a leader, you’ll be used to juggling priorities. And, as we enter a new year, you’ll be gearing up to meet your own strategic targets. You will also know that leadership is evolving, almost beyond recognition.

Our research into changing leadership behaviours – A New Way to Lead – gathered the insights of 300+ business leaders across the US, UK, and Europe, ultimately identifying two broad leadership camps: ‘survivors’ and ‘revivers’. Survivor leaders are risk averse, unwilling to adapt, and stay in their lane – a lane that leads to nowhere. Reviver leaders are different. They are optimistic, creative, and authentic. They captain their crew with compassion, charting a course through turbulent tides towards a clearly defined purpose. Reviver leaders exhibit four key behaviours that 70 percent of respondents see as critical to high performance. They:

  • Nurture human optimism
  • Empower teams to innovate
  • Build evolving organisations, and
  • Seek inspiration in surprising places.

Here, we explore each behaviour in the context of an uncertain – and exciting – new year.

Be a realistic optimist

In a global recession, with rising operational costs, optimism might not come easily. While it’s tempting to be a survivor, a bounty of benefits come from optimistic, reviver-style leadership. Positive, happy workforces are around 12 percent more productive.

As a leader, you set the standard for the rest of your team. Optimism is crucial. In fact, our respondents ranked the ability to nurture human optimism as the most important leadership behaviour of all. Rather than pretending that everything is going brilliantly, match optimism with authenticity. Acknowledging complexity and encouraging the right mindsets will enable your team and wider organisation to adapt with agility, inspiring the best in people and helping them overcome the fear of uncertainty.

For example, we were an integral part of the UK government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce, coordinating a wide breadth of partners and critical supply projects to support safe, rapid vaccine delivery for 80 percent of UK adults within seven months of regulatory approval. The project relied on openness and clear alignment towards a critical goal, inspiring optimism while remaining realistic about the scale of the task.

Reposition what it means to be powerful

Outdated perspectives on power are gradually breaking down. Now, power is increasingly positioned as something to be shared, not secreted away. So, empower teams to innovate. Help them to understand your vision and inspire them to build towards it, giving them:

  • Space – Great ideas are unlikely to come from sitting at a desk. Identify and embrace liminal spaces, like the commute, the water cooler, the office kitchen, and the post-work drinks. If you’re working virtually, encourage creativity through less formal online environments and feedback forums.
  • Permission – Being ‘in your power’ as a leader is certainly about being strategic, and resilient. It’s also about embracing kindness and creating psychological safety for your team. Powerful leaders empower, giving people permission to think in new ways. To help our clients do this, we run curated psychological safety sessions in multiple sectors including defence and security, where we work collaboratively with teams to understand the relationship between psychological safety and wellbeing, and offer practical recommendations.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Change is often described as ‘the new constant’. Change is cyclical – there will always be changes to contend with in different guises. Think altered geo-political relationships, or a world-wide pandemic.

Fear of change and uncertainty hold survivors up. Successful leaders respond positively to uncertainty by building evolving organisations. They and their teams think about change differently to the point that they may not even use that vocabulary, because course-corrections are part of how they operate. When the storm hits, they simply adjust their sails.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with your eyes wide open to the opportunities that can come from adversity. Make evolution part of your culture to get your optimistic, empowered team on board. There will, of course, be growing pains. If you’re not uncomfortable then you’re not growing.

Be bold

While survivors stagnate, revivers innovate. Revivers seek inspiration in surprising places and, in doing so, develop robust solutions to ever-evolving challenges.

Start by assessing the resources and skills you already have, exploring how existing technologies and talent can be repositioned or reimagined to navigate future trends. When you need to source outside expertise, look to start-ups and partners who can provide these new capabilities. L’Oreal, for example, partnered with EMOTIV, a leading neurotechnology company, to develop personalised scents for consumers based around algorithms and neuroscience.

Not only do bold leaders value new perspectives – they actively look for them, leaving no stone unturned. This includes thinking outside the proverbial box through a much broader lens, looking at other organisations, industries, sectors, and beyond to find new opportunities. For example, we helped our client Rolls Royce to launch their clean energy spin-off, Rolls Royce Small Modular Reactors, designing the new venture as a strengths-based organisation to attract the talent needed to maximise productivity and performance.

The start of a new year is a great time to begin brand-new ventures and try out new things. By all means, set ambitious goals for yourself and your team – with a hint of realism, restraint, and reserve. The start of the year is just that – the start. Much like new year’s resolutions, successful leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. Create healthy habits that eventually become behaviours, and you’ll weather all the seasons.

About the authors

Rachael Brassey
Rachael Brassey Global Head of People and Change

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