If we look at the core principles of leadership, they really have not changed much since the industrial age. But our workforce has certainly changed a lot! That has become an issue, but also a huge opportunity.
When people work at an assembly line, it is all about effectiveness, making sure each task is performed as fast and flawless as possible and that no individual is holding up the flow of sequential tasks that are performed. Clear and precise instructions are important, and a top down model works very well. But as machines have taken over many repetitive tasks, humans have increasingly become creative knowledge workers. The top down, authority-based leadership that served its purpose at the assembly line, does not work well at all when we need innovators and smart risk takers. We´ve known this for a while, but two things are accelerating much needed change:
- Millennials, who do not want to accept the rules of the past, who value flexibility over other types of compensation and who look for purpose and meaning in what they do.
- The COVID pandemic, that finally forced even the most conservative managers to accept remote work, which means they are forced to lead differently, moving away from top down control, towards trust and empowerment.
Leadership that unleashes peoples potential, supports creativity and innovation are based on a few core principles:
- Purpose over ego
People follow leaders who truly stand for something, who have a vision and believe in an outcome that feels desirable. People are much less inclined to follow someone who plays games for personal gain, who is opportunistic and change their opinion and vision based on power shifts.
A lot of people expect a leadership position to involve politics, which in turn is often associated with manipulation, cheating, and taking advantage of others to get ahead. In fact, politics is a word and expected behavior that makes people with the most potential to become excellent leaders shy away from leadership jobs, because they think it means they have to play that type of game.
There is also a positive interpretation of politics though. At the core it is about influencing, building alliances and rallying people around a common goal. A great politician and leader create environments where big things can be achieved, they remove obstacles and create structures that support and empower teams on a journey towards a vision that is perceived as meaningful.
- Trusting people
The COVID pandemic has shown that you have to trust people, because in a remote environment you simply can´t watch people sitting at a desk working (which of course has nothing to do with productivity and outcome anyway).Leading people based on trust versus authority and top down force requires a very solid foundation that takes time to build. It is easy to tell someone “if you don´t do what I ask, you will get a poor performance review or get fired”. They might make a real effort, especially if they really depend on the income, but they will never be their best, and they may even try to cheat the system if they can.Trust based leadership requires more, but it also produces a way better outcome. It starts with the shared vision, selling what you envision and helping others believe that it is possible, that they can do more and better on this journey than they thought they were capable of. If the desire to achieve the common goal is strong, you don´t need to micro manage the steps to get there, people will jump there in leaps.
- Supporting DiversityIt is scientifically proven that real innovation does not just benefit from diversity, it depends on diversity. The reason is simple: You need different perspectives for better ideas and it is also about serving diverse target groups. Most organizations don´t produce products or services only for people that are exactly the same as themselves. You can´t innovate for a diverse target group if you don´t have audience representation on your own team. You will never be as fast in identifying their needs and your solution to meet their needs will never be as good.
But here´s the problem: Diversity is not as simple as putting different people together. It is hard leadership work! If you have minorities in a group, dynamics will work against them. They are by definition the odd ones out, the ones with perspectives and ideas that are hard for others to understand. Without strong leadership and investment in culture, they will be marginalized and frustrated, with an outcome that is worse than if your team is homogeneous. You won’t get the benefits from a diverse team and you will deal with engagement and motivation issues.As a leader, you need to build bridges, help people understand each other, introduce formats that surface and support different ideas. You need to moderate, translate messages, and strengthen the minorities until your culture becomes so strong that it is no longer required. That´s when the real magic happens.
The next mega trend in business: Communities
This type of next generation leadership goes hand in hand with another mega trend in business and beyond: Community. In our hyper connected world, people turn to their social communities for everything. They use their trusted communities to evaluate what they buy, where they want to work, where they go to learn, but it is also where they network, socialize and build alliances for their personal and professional future.
Leaders who know how to build and leverage communities are the winners of tomorrow, and in this environment you can´t rely on a formal mandate or authority, leadership is earned by serving, adding value, visibly standing for something that people want to rally around. It is the future of attracting talent, winning customers, building the best teams and solutions for the world; in short: The opportunity to have a bigger impact where it matters the most.