Powering change: Flexing leadership skills in a world of constant flux
One of the essential skills of a leader is the ability to successfully respond to, and drive, change. But what happens when that change is always shifting?
Leaders at all levels are living through the reality of complex continual change. Technological advances, climate challenges, financial crises, and geopolitical conflict have combined to create an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. But the concept of a VUCA environment is not new. The term was first coined by the US military to describe problematic working conditions post-Cold War in the 1980’s. Yet 40 years on, it has helped define leadership in the face of relentless challenges. Some have even started to develop the term further into ‘BANI’, meaning brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible. No matter the name you give this fast-paced world, it’s important to note that the leadership skills and qualities needed to deal with it are also rapidly changing. So, what should leaders do to ensure they are able to successfully respond to change and drive it through their organisation?
Focus on four key areas:
1. Projecting a sense of purpose and progress
Whilst leaders may not have all the answers, it’s important to establish a purposeful ‘north star’ and a direction of travel for the organisation, to gain the support and buy-in of wider teams. Giving employees a sense of purpose and something to work towards often leads to higher engagement. We collaborated with The Ocean Race to articulate their purpose of greater gender balance, and start making meaningful strides towards it. Showcasing progress against a goal, using meaningful metrics, and communicating these with the organisation will build confidence throughout teams. Leaders can also use this ‘north star’ to balance and manage emotive responses to challenging situations, acknowledging that while times can be challenging, the organisation is on the right path.
2. Developing a collaborative mindset
Leaders cannot hope to absorb and process the deluge of information they’re exposed to alone. They can’t be on top of everything, so a sense of humility and an ability to ask for help from others is essential. This requires a genuine interest in the views and ideas of others, working across functional and organisational boundaries with a willingness to change direction in the face of new intelligence and opinions.
3. Showing genuine empathy for the anxieties of others
Creating psychologically safe environments, where discussing fears and challenges is usual, is pivotal to maintaining employee wellbeing in volatile times. Our work with HYDRA revealed that psychological safety was key to creating high-performing teams, especially when under pressure. Leaders will no doubt be faced with a wide variety of challenges in their roles – particularly if they are leading large teams. Everyone responds differently to pressure, so leaders need to flex their approach. What works well in one region, won’t necessarily work in another. Successful leaders own their personal discomfort in challenging times and can be authentic in sharing their own worries and concerns. No one individual can hope to come up with a magic solution by themselves.
4. Balancing focus between today’s crisis and tomorrow’s shocks
Leaders need to engage their curiosity to look beyond current challenges and anticipate the next set of future shocks. Whilst many will feel the complications they are wrestling are unique (and elements will be), there are always lessons to be learned from previous experiences. It’s important for leaders to share the load and take on the feedback and advice of those around them. However, the ability of leaders to create readiness and build resilience through testing their decisions and planning is crucial. Scenario planning, system thinking, contingency planning, and negotiation techniques help organisations build preparedness in the face of shocks.
Whilst leading in today’s environment can be daunting, it’s important to remember that taking a human-centric approach to leadership is often the way forward. While one size does not fit all, there are ways leaders can keep their people, and themselves, front and centre, whilst responding to change.