For the past few decades, successful company leaders have shared a few common traits: bold vision, ability to simplify complex situations, the power to inspire others. They are all excellent qualities indeed, but the recent global pandemic and the upheaval it has caused showed an urgentt need for a new way of thinking about leadership.
With workforces growing both global and remote and economies undergoing significant transformations, simplification is no longer possible.
Today’s challenges are complex and growing increasingly so, and the leaders of tomorrow need to reskill themselves for a very different landscape. There was already a change, with hierarchical leadership giving way to collaboration and flexibility even before the pandemic.
Once the world went into crisis, overwhelmed employees looked to their leaders for guidance and support. Not all of them lived up to the challenge. With the volatile situation in Eastern Europe right now, there is an even bigger crisis on the horizon— political, humanitarian, and economical. Once more, leaders’ abilities will be put to the test.
The key leadership priorities for 2022
As the world is scrambling to find solutions to this years’ problems, there are a few aspects that leaders need to be mindful of. Economic challenges are great, yet organizational focus should be on people and their emotional and physical wellbeing.
1. Empathy must become central to leadership
The Great Resignation made the competition for talent a very tight one. As a result, business leaders need to build and encourage a work environment that prioritizes human connections and collaboration. The past few years have left us with one certainty: that nothing is certain.
Employees need to feel understood and supported by their managers. They require a lot of positive motivation in a rather hostile global environment. Having empathy and compassion as the two leading ingredients of your leadership style means building solid trust within your team, stakeholders and the larger community. Some statistics show that 40% of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic leader. That percentage is staggering because attracting and retaining talented employees is difficult.
Empathy goes beyond trying to understand another person’s feelings; it requires the ability to see things from their perspective. Going even deeper, developing empathy is correlated with a high emotional intelligence(EQ). According to Daniel Goleman, there are five key elements:
- Self-awareness means knowing and understanding oneself. People who exhibit self-awareness are honest with themselves and know how to play to their strengths and accept their weaknesses to make appropriate decisions;
- Self-regulation refers to the ability to control one’s impulses and not overreact in difficult situations. Mastering this comes with reacting well to change and embracing it;
- Motivation is the drive to improve and meet one’s goals constantly. It involves initiative and readiness to act on opportunities and show resilience in tough situations;
- Empathy is the awareness and consideration of the feelings of others. This dimension of EQ is essential for understanding the people around us and different cultures;
- Social skills involve a genuine understanding of people and building strong relationships.
2. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) should be at the center of all HR initiatives
DEI has been on corporate leadership’s radar for some time. Still, even with visible efforts, there’s much more to do in this area. Rather than treat DEI as a social responsibility item, it is time to transform it into an all-encompassing change to bring down all workplace barriers.
Leadership objectives need to include formulating talent-based strategies to become an inclusive organization with a diverse culture that is open to innovative individuals and ideas. In her book Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the former global chief diversity officer of Sodexo, Rohini Arnad, aims to tackle DEI at an international level.
She talks about the challenge of translating DEI programs in a multinational environment with various cultural, legal, and political contexts. She reminds leaders that “every place has its history of exclusion, its discrimination, its web of attitudes and systems that fuel and justify marginalization.” A major leadership development priority needs to be uncovering these historical power imbalances. Once these are out in the open, it is time to take things forward by working together with local stakeholders and cultural specialists to find the most effective strategies for addressing the pressing issues.
3. Make psychological safety a priority
Mental health and employee wellness need to be at the heart of all HR strategies. Like remote work and a thorough rethinking of productivity metrics are part of the complicated New Normal puzzle, so a focus on the employee’s psychological needs is the glue that can hold it all together.
Mental health is a critical factor in how satisfied, productive, creative, and innovative your employees are. Leaders must cultivate a work environment that guarantees psychological safety. The concept, coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Dr. Timothy Clark went on to identify four stages of psychological safety in the workplace:
- Inclusion safety refers to satisfying the basic human need of connection and belonging. This stage is about feeling accepted as you are;
- Learner safety means that you feel safe to learn, experiment, ask questions and call for help in this stage, don’t fear making mistakes and are open to feedback;
- Contributor safety you can make contributions using your acquired knowledge and skills;
- Challenger safety involves feeling safe enough to question decisions and procedures when you see there is room for improvement or innovation.
According to Dr. Clark, team members must progress through these stages to feel comfortable speaking up and making valuable contributions. Leaders need to be aware of these stages and mindful of how they react to employee actions and ideas.
4. Exchange vision for strategic foresight
Strategic foresight is a well-developed process of creating functional views of alternative futures and options. By doing this, organizations are constantly prepared for any challenges and can easily take advantage of hidden opportunities.
Employing strategic foresight, leaders can more easily navigate uncertainty and upheaval while also impacting results. Scenario mapping is one of the most useful tools for designing a strategy. In a nutshell, it entails testing the impact of various options you are considering. It helps look at a situation to discover any elements you can leverage when there is uncertainty.
Any plan needs thorough testing to determine its viability. Without this step, you can be in real trouble if markets change fast, and you’re not prepared for the problems it needs to fix. Strategic foresight helps leaders:
- Map several divergent scenarios. Challenge status quo, ask why things have to function in a certain way and what everything would look like if something major changed. Develop solutions for hypothetical unexpected situations;
- Create adaptative and resilient company cultures. The natural way of responding to change is to resist it, which is counterproductive in today’s challenging business environment. Focus on strengthening the confidence employees have in the company and make sure there is a strong sense of purpose;
- Explore the external environment. With so much going on inside the organization, it’s easy to lose sight of what is going on externally. The past few years have proved that something that initially seems inconsequential and far away (like container ship that blocked the Suez Canal) can have tremendous effects. Keep informed and often look outside the organization;
- Thrive in tough times by knowing and dealing with organizational biases, as they can greatly influence your decision-making process.
5. Uncover personal and organizational assumptions
It’s natural to make assumptions and consequently act on them. In the words of Harvard researchers, “the stories our brain tells are influenced by life experience.”
However, while on a personal level, it might still work to base decisions on a set of unchallenged beliefs, at an organizational level, they can mean the company’s downfall. When the leaders’ biases and assumptions keep them from recognizing significant changes, it becomes a substantial issue with dire consequences.
When confronted with an unprecedented situation, we tend to automatically filter everything through the perspectives and beliefs we already have. An excellent example of how the unpredictable took many businesses by surprise is the 2020 global chip shortage. With its effects still in full swing, this crisis is now on the verge of taking a turn for the worse, with Ukraine being a major producer of neon gas, which is needed for chip production. Company leaders prepared to mitigate this have a better chance of staying ahead than those that believe that the situation is due to improve as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic slows down.
Our own unconscious bias will generally overcome the desire to change, and new initiatives will feel dangerous. Strategic foresight, however, can help you view everything from a transformative perspective. It allows you to identify hidden personal or organizational narratives that are detrimental to moving forward.
5. Look further than the industry
Leaders need to keep up with industry changes, but most often, the true signs of change are hard to see if you’re not paying attention to other areas. It’s therefore important to closely look at seemingly unrelated areas of business and economy. A very good example is the current supply chain issue. Initially blamed on the global crisis, it has shown many facets and impacted various businesses to different degrees.
From extreme weather phenomena to the blockage of the Suez Canal and the congestion of a freight railroad franchise in the US, many factors disrupted the global economy by impacting the supply chain. All these can be a problem in the future as well. Looking from the outside in and understanding what is going on in various areas. It’s crucial to challenge your own biases and be creative and innovative constantly. The potential for uncovering something valuable is enormous. The new leadership mind-map needs to expect the unexpected and try to model it.
With disruption becoming the word of the day (or decade judging by the way things are going), leaders need to change how they think and act. The leadership priorities for 2022 need to be people-oriented and driven by strategic foresight.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.