What kind of leadership do we need in the new normal?

Remote work has dominated most business conversations in the past few weeks. Many organizations were not ready, and are now struggling in this sudden and massive disruption. However, adapting to work from home isn’t just challenging companies but also exposing their dysfunctions.

Cultural tensions and the cracks in the team functioning are being accelerated by remote work. When feeling under fire, people switch to preservation mode. It’s not only people’s character and resilience that are put to the test; but the notion of leadership, too.

Most people have been trained to lead in normal times, not in uncertain and ambiguous ones. This crisis is a reminder that the world is no longer predictable and linear. Our current leadership model is broken.

This new normal is here to stay. Just as our understanding of remote work must change, so must our view of leadership.

We don’t need a leader, but a network of leaders

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing years of leadership failure.

This crisis has shown us leaders’ inability to prepare for a disaster or to quickly adapt once it started. In the US, it has exposed a profound failure to plan for a pandemic that experts have warned of for years.

Many heads of state failed to adapt and act quickly; they either downplayed the threat or tried to tackle the crisis on their own rather than collaborating with other countries.

We are all in this together, but not everyone is working together.

A command-and-control approach has made things worse. In times of crisis, there’s no room for egos, loyalty games, or for divide-and-conquer approaches.

As Manley Hopkinson, a Royal Navy officer who served during the first Gulf War, told McKinsey, “It is vital that a leader resists centralizing control. The temptation in a time of crisis is for leaders to put themselves at the center of all activity. It’s an understandable desire to ensure all is well, even though precisely the opposite is needed.”

The lack of a coherent culture fails to create an environment that allows teams to work independently and with each other. A common understanding, trust, and feedback are crucial to collaborate during a crisis.

It’s not just that our leaders are failing; the leadership is broken.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposes, once again, our unhealthy relationship with the idea of leadership. Our obsession with leaders and its romanticized version portrayed in movies, management books, Internet quotes, and inspirational talks, is broken.

As Joseph C. Rost wrote on Leadership for the 21st Century, “The lack of agreement on the matter means that leadership is practically anything anyone wants to say it is, and leaders are anyone who is so designated.”

No surprise then that we end getting the wrong kind of leaders. As research by Burson-Marsteller shows, investors are willing to pay a premium for shares of a company with a celebrated CEO. Business journalists and academia think the same. Everyone worships high-profile, charismatic leaders.

We tend to choose leaders who are strong, determined, and look in control. Yet, research indicates that we need the opposite. Being confident doesn’t make someone competent.

The Great Man Theory still influences how we view leaders; we must get rid of it.

Leading is less about the person and more about getting things done together. Let’s shift the focus from being a leader (an idealized role) to leading (a verb). Leading is a set of behaviors; it doesn’t require a title or an innate superpower. Everyone can – and should – lead change.

Collective leadership is what we need to thrive in uncertain times. And, now, more than ever. As Peter Senge said, “Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future” (note the emphasis on ‘community).

Leadership Meta-Skills for the 21st Century

Everything feels upside now, and no one knows how the new normal will look like. The same applies to leadership. We need a revolution, and to start building a new leadership model.

The first step is to let go of labels (another obsession in the business world). Transformational, charismatic, or servant leadership styles – to name a few – are labels. They put us in a box; labels establish hierarchies. They make us worry more about being perceived as a ‘cool’ leader than on improving how we lead.  

This takes me to the notion of meta-skills — a master skill that magnifies and activates other skills. Meta-skills are catalysts for learning, and building new skills faster leading requires developing high order skills. Here are the most important ones:

Increased Self-Awareness

Self-awareness has a more positive impact on our leadership ability than an MBA. It increases team performance, contributes to effective leadership, and also improves the bottom line.

However, self-awareness seems to be in short supply. A study by the Hay Group showed that 19 percent of women executives demonstrated high self-awareness, compared to 4 percent of their male counterparts.

We all believe we know ourselves much better than we actually do. That’s the problem with self-awareness  –  most leaders don’t know what they don’t know.

To lead others, we must first learn to lead ourselves.

Being Empathetic

Empathy is more than walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s genuinely grasping what others are going through. It’s such an essential human skill that babies already practice it; their reactions vary depending on the facial expressions of adults.

20% of employers now offer empathy training. Even the U.S. Army has included empathy in its Leadership Development Manual; it is considered an essential leadership component.

Empathy accelerates intimacy, and trust. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, once said, “When someone feels seen and heard by you, they begin to trust you.”

Being empathetic is a vital leadership meta-skill. It helps us understand how others – whether it’s a client, a colleague, or a partner – are feeling so that we can respond appropriately.

Promote Psychological Safety

Leading is a collective act, requiring participation from everyone in the organization. We need to hear everyone’s voices; the more diverse the perspectives, the better the solutions.

I was shocked, though not surprised, to hear about how many people have already lost their jobs for speaking up during this pandemic.

The Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus was fired. A US Navy Captain was let go for addressing the Covid-19 outbreak in his ship. Hospitals have put doctors on notice for speaking out about a lack of medical gear.

Leading requires promoting psychological safety; people must feel that their workplace is safe to take interpersonal risks. And that starts by making it okay to say what one thinks, especially if it’s uncomfortable.

People are sensors that observe what you might not. In times of crisis, not having the right facts can cause unnecessary harm and deaths. Promoting psychological safety will encourage people not only to share the issues they see but to act upon them, too.

Embrace Intellectual Humility

Leading is not about having all the answers, but caring about finding the right one.

Intellectual humility encourages us to recognize that our beliefs or opinions can be incorrect. Humility is a powerful leadership meta-skill – humble leaders inspire collaboration, rapid learning, and high performance, according to research.

We need wise leaders, not arrogant ones.

In the US, inaction and mistakes happened because of arrogance. We now have a dismal record of being the country with the most coronavirus cases. Experts are not leading the responses; their bosses are.

Most leaders operate from a position of superiority  –  they think their opinions matter more than those of their subordinates. Arrogant leaders discard solutions regardless of their value; they just care about their own ideas.

Intellectual humility is about finding the truth, not winning an argument.

Leading requires leaving the door open, even when we are convinced we are right. To be receptive to new facts and data – no matter if they contradict our beliefs or not.

Collective Leadership

While many world leaders have closed their borders, the scientific community has smashed theirs. As this New York Times piece demonstrates, scientists are creating a global collaboration unlike any in history.

As the article explains, “Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.”

Scientists have put their egos aside. They don’t care about getting academic credit or publishing their findings on a journal; studies and research are shared online all the time with everyone.  

Collective leadership requires understanding that leading is not a solo sport. True scientists don’t speak in terms of nationality; they work together to find the best solution as quickly as possible. They weren’t told by their bosses to work together; it was their choice.

Collective leadership is about leading as one. It’s also about understanding that we live in a global society; the well-being of everyone counts, not just of those who belong to our group.

Balancing candor with optimism

The idea that leaders have to protect others is dangerous. Not only it removes agency from people but encourages leaders to treat people as if they were weak. We don’t need another hero; leading is about being human – to be on the same level as everyone, not to stand on a pedestal.

Leading requires balancing candor with optimism; we must stay deliberately calm.

Undermining reality can be dangerous. People need to hear the truth. They will actually find it out, and trust will suffer.

During the 2008 financial crisis, Starwood reduced its headcount by a substantial amount. After the first round, everyone expected to hear that will be the only round of layoffs. However, the leadership avoided that; no one knew what could happen in such an uncertain scenario.

Interestingly enough, when companies are going through a rough patch, employees step up and are more willing to help. The more you share, the more people will care.

Hope is what inspires people when they are facing their darkest times like we are today. However, there’s a fine line between reassuring and saying something that’s overly optimistic.

As Simon Sinek says, “Optimism is not the denial of reality. Positivity is saying things are good, even if they are not. Optimism is the belief that the future is positive. It’s the fundamental belief that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that we are headed toward that light.” 


Our Leadership Model Is Broken

We need a leadership revolution. To get rid of leadership labels and start building a new model to thrive in this new normal.

Developing meta-skills is critical to improving our ability to lead effectively. I shared some that I consider vital, which other meta-skills do you think are crucial, too?

PS: If you want to equip yourself with the meta-skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century, look at our just-launched online Change Leadership Program: Leading in Uncertainty. It will help you overcome not only your current challenges but the challenges to come.