The changing face of leadership

“One part Churchill, two parts Princess Diana” was how one of our clients recently described what was demanded of her as a successful leader in a modern day organization. This was certainly an intriguing mental image, but one which made sense as she went on to describe her experiences. What she said also reflected what we have learned from working with the fifteen organisations who are using Heartbeat -large and small organisations in retail, manufacturing, technology, logistics and education – and supporting their leadership teams.

Leadership is certainly a bigger issue than ever. Not that long ago we expected those at the top to be great managers and make sure that the processes worked and that outputs were achieved efficiently. Top bosses were often great technicians and this reflected the nature of many organisations – we had more large scale industrial operations such as coal, steel and mass produced manufacturing in which the key issues were knowing what to do and when. Now, there are more service and knowledge based businesses in which the personality, approach and personal commitment of people have a much greater direct impact on business success and senior individuals have a key role to play in activating them.

From this work, we have spotted some big shifts in what effective leadership really looks like now. Of these, the three most pronounced changes to leadership which we’ve noticed are: the need to communicate a vision and then engage people in it at every level, the huge impact of trust as the fuel of leadership, and the growing necessity to give people freedom within a framework.

  1. Communicate a vision and engage people in it at every level – it’s always been vital for anyone aspiring to leadership to have a vision and articulate it clearly so that people can understand it – that’s the ‘Churchill’ part referred to earlier. What’s more crucial now is that people need and expect to know why that vision is important, what’s required from them to bring it about and what’s in it for them to do so. This means that leaders must be natural and approachable, able to listen and demonstrate a real understanding of their teams. They need to ask the right questions, be prepared for challenges and have the ability to link strategies with people’s day to day lives. Most of all, they must be genuinely interested in their teams and able to connect with people at all levels to have conversations not just about the ‘what?’ but also the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. This is the “Princess Diana’ part mentioned above. Throughout, though, authenticity is crucial – we are all able to spot a phoney and when we do their leadership credibility takes a hard knock.

Heartbeat has helped leaders in our client organisations establish this connection and have conversations on a larger scale by giving access to people’s feelings and comments in real time and enabling them to respond to issues while they are relevant and fresh.

  1. The huge impact of trust – leaders have always needed to be trusted, but what seems to be changing is what that trust relates to, and the value given to it. In the past, trust in leadership was frequently about their competence and record of success, now it’s more about their personality, values and how we view the relationship we have with them. Often we hear from teams going through transition that trust in their leaders has the biggest impact on how they view changes and respond to them. Trust is built up over time. Leaders are trusted if they are consistent in what they say and do and if they do what they say they will. It’s also important that people have regular contact with leaders for trust to develop. It’s harder to have faith in a distant figure who is seen rarely than in someone you are more familiar with – someone who has expressed emotion, discussed your issues with you and maybe even shared some of his or her own feelings. It’s the principle behind state visits of leaders – contact establishes an intimacy and trust which makes relationships between nations easier.

The challenge is that at the same time as trust is becoming ever more important, we are less and less inclined to give it. Our faith in politicians , figures of authority, professionals and experts is declining rapidly, so organizational leaders have to work harder to make connections and build links. Heartbeat has been helping our clients do this by being open to feedback – good and less good – and responding to it directly in a human way, rather than in a dry, sanitized manner months after the issue was most relevant.

  1. Giving freedom in a framework – before, senior people often focused more on inputs – attendance, working hours, resource management, playing by the rules. Effective leaders now pay greater attention to outcomes – what their people achieve. This is very evident, for example, when organisations shift to agile working, including hot desks, home working or multisite operations. It’s still important to work to key principles, especially as more business have regulations to which they must comply, but these are expressed as a framework, often agreed in conjunction with the team itself, which states expectations and responsibilities. Leaders focus more on freeing people up to work within this framework. This again means being able to connect with people, reassure them and help them see what they themselves can achieve. It needs time and effort invested in conversations, but the payback can be big as people become more collaborative, creative and innovative, all crucial sources of competitive advantage for many organisations.
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