When I say the word “leader” to you — what picture pops into your mind? Is it a person? Is it an action? Or is it something else entirely?
Leadership has often been difficult to describe. One idea is Justice Stewart’s when it comes to leadership — which I think rings true: Leadership is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.
However, I think a great leader in the 21st c. post-pandemic world might be radically different vs. a pre-pandemic leader.
A pre-pandemic leader was most likely (let’s be honest) a white, older male, who got into the building first thing in the morning, clocked when everyone was coming in and out, left last, took a top-down approach, and surrounded himself with those just like him. He’s confident and can fake it until he made it.
But is this stereotype really going to cut it now? In a world that is changed by economic drama and a pandemic that has radically changed the way that we work and collaborate?
I argue no.
I’ve stated all along during the pandemic that companies that already worked remotely pre-pandemic were at a distinct advantage to companies who went to an office every day, and I think that still rings true. There have been many, many field-based jobs pre-pandemic, and those individuals had to figure out the additional skill sets to get things done, long before everyone was telecommuting. But what do their bosses or managers share in common — of the past, and what might a great leader post-pandemic look like?
Here are some thoughts (and mine alone). Feel free to push back or add if you see other traits:
- Flexibility — All of us who followed management concepts back in the day loved ROWE a long time ago — and frankly, it never should have gone away. The idea of a results-only work environment was introduced back in the early 2000's…and it could not ring more true today. Great leaders post-pandemic won’t care if you have to get your hair cut on a Monday afternoon at 2 pm or take your mom to a doctor’s appointment, or which building or cubicle you got that big project finished in and where you were when you finished it…what they as good leaders DO care about is: did you get your work done, and done well, on or ahead of time? That’s it. They’re not buying some expensive software and tracking you 24/7. They don’t have time for that. What they care about and focus on are your individual results!
- Empathy — Does your leadership really care about you as a person as an employee, or do they just get down to business? Now, I admit — I’m a high I, and I’m personally allergic to small talk myself (unless I have something that I really feel passionate about), but great 21st c. leaders do a good job of asking you how you are — REALLY ARE, before they get down to business. Great leaders will focus on the PERSON BEFORE the business. It’s not just all business anymore. It can’t be. Work and life are just too intertwined these days.
- Listening — Old school leaders tended to spew what they thought was gospel. But new leaders are really going to have to work hard at tossing out a question, shutting their mouths, and going around the room to get everyone’s input without their own commentary. It’s often the quietest in the room who often have the wisest and best solutions to any problem. If you’re a leader and struggle with this — consider soliciting a volunteer to track how much time each person talks in the meeting — literally. Who’s occupying the most airspace? If it is the leader him or herself — that needs to change. If it’s one squawker and everyone else sits in silence, that needs to change. Great leaders do less talking and more listening — and make sure there is a democracy of opinion around the room — not just one person sounding off all the time. (And I’ve personally been in more than my own fair share of these meetings with a squawker — but I don’t blame the squawker — I blame the leader for not shutting that down.)
- Curiosity — Leaders ask great questions. Again, the old-school-top-down approach isn’t going to cut it anymore. If leaders DO talk, all they should be talking about is asking great questions. Then go back to bullet 3 above. I don’t know if there is leadership training out there or not on how to ask great questions, but I find learning about curiosity by listening to great interviewers on podcasts and in the media. I think the art of asking great questions is a learnable skill that every 21st c. leader needs to have in their quiver of tools. A current leader I have asked me about a topic that has now led the company to saving $1.5 M first quarter on one new service. ONE TOPIC! How many other multimillion-dollar topics are lurking at your company, just waiting to be a topic of discussion?
- Diversity — Leaders who want to win in their businesses moving forward MUST hire people NOT LIKE THEM. Diversity is more important now than ever. Diversity of backgrounds, cultures, ideas, and thoughts are absolutely critical in a post-pandemic world. We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and sometimes diversity may bring discomfort — but that’s how we grow. Find the red herring or the diamond in the rough who is not like you. Find those who respectfully dissent and provide a rationale for why they dissent. Respect others’ opinions and listen. Change your own mind from time to time.
- Sharing — This may be THE hardest concept for the old school leaders — but it’s the ability to get vulnerable and share with the entire organization. “I don’t know” is a very, very powerful statement from a leader. Leaders don’t like not having all the answers. But the smart ones know that there is NO WAY they are ever going to know everything. The great 21st c. leaders will hire experts with very particular sets of skills, give them the resources they need to be thought leaders in their respective arenas, and GET OUT OF THEIR WAY and let the magic unfold. The leaders don’t steal the glory either.
I’m going to keep on thinking about this topic — because I think it’s still unfolding before us about how the new 21st c. post-pandemic leaders are going to succeed in the long haul. We’re all just figuring this out. But I can tell you that I’ve had the privilege of watching great and not-so-great leadership in my own professional past, but the best leaders I’ve ever worked for have these characteristics above. While some of them are rare to find in my past, I do believe and hope we’ll see more of these characteristics from leaders of the future.