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Leadership in uncertain times

We’re living in a time of political, social and economic upheaval. What do leaders need to provide?

Organisations around the world face unprecedented strategic challenges. Old models are being swept away. Economic volatility combined with rapid advances in technology, intensifying competition and an unpredictable political landscape call for clarity of thought and speed of action.

Unquestionably, this necessitates both good leadership and fresh thinking. But how will leadership need to change to meet the many challenges of the business world today?

“In uncertain times when things move fast and change often in business, the best leaders know they must be more adaptable and cannot rely on their old tried and tested techniques,” says Yell HR director Nikki Jacobi. “At Yell we have embraced this through measuring innovation behaviours in our leaders. They must view their role as more collaborative and more nurturing of great talent to bring through people that will contribute to their team’s success.”

In Jacobi’s opinion good leadership in 2017 hinges on three crucial attributes: the courage to admit you may not have the solution but need to look more broadly to find the right people to help generate ideas; openness to trying new approaches and not relying on traditional ways to get things done; and most importantly, flexibility to change direction if something isn’t working.

This is manifested in Yell through a senior team that uses employee ideas from all levels to help guide strategic direction. More than ever, Jacobi asserts, leaders need to be inclusive and build a collaborative approach to their role. It is only by communicating widely and sharing their plans that they can bring all staff along with them on the change journey.

This collaborative approach flies in the face of the ‘heroic’ leadership model that traditionally figured in the change process. Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership at Cranfield School of Management, says the old thinking was to rally around a larger-than-life person who provided a sense of security through strong leadership. Trust was placed in the leader to navigate the stormy weather and employees were for the most part comfortable being told what to do. However, the certainty that followers crave is impossible to deliver if you have no idea where the journey is going.

“In uncertain times you need to involve many in leadership to ensure that all possible options are explored,” says Kelan. “This is where post-heroic leadership comes in. Post-heroic leadership means a move away from command and control towards collaborative forms of leadership that empower the individual to contribute to decision-making. We move from an all-knowing leader to someone who is making decisions in collaboration with others.”

This calls for a flexible leadership style. Key to it, says Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, is letting people get on with things, which means never supervising more than the minimum necessary. In essence: matching delegation and supervision to the individual and job.

Unfortunately, despite its straightforwardness, this is overlooked by many organisations. “The basics can be taught in just an hour and then built on with practise,” says Roebuck. “This goes to the wider point that most organisations fail to even do this for their leaders, which explains why there are major issues when the world becomes unpredictable.”

But, warn experts, hands-off leadership that aims to empower rather than micro-manage shouldn’t be confused with lack of purpose. Research shows that, particularly in uncertain times, organisations need purposeful leaders; those who set an ethical vision for their teams, take an ethical approach to leadership marked by a commitment to stakeholders, and have a strong ‘moral self’.

Purposeful leadership has increasingly come to the fore in today’s uncertain times because of rising disillusionment among employees with the short-term financial imperatives driving culture and working practices at many companies. CIPD research shows that purposeful leaders have a positive impact on a range of employee outcomes such as job satisfaction, organisational citizen behaviour, and retention, as well as organisational outcomes such as lower levels of cynicism and perceptions of organisational fairness.

However, the study revealed that within the UK only 21% of managers rate themselves highly as purposeful leaders and a mere 8% rank themselves highly on the ‘moral self’ component of purposeful leadership. The majority (86%) gave themselves a medium score. According to the research the ‘moral self’ of leaders is positively related to their ethical behaviours, as observed by their followers.

“Clearly there is a gap between the need and the availability of purposeful leaders,” says CIPD research adviser Ramya Yarlagadda. “Organisational interventions like values-based recruitment and progression and bespoke leadership development programmes that help develop the ‘moral self’ of leaders can help to address this gap.”

Metro Bank chief people officer Danny Harmer agrees that such a sense of purpose will be critical during periods of flux, when colleagues’ thoughts turn to the risks of change. An automatic impulse is to look towards leaders for guidance and reassurance, she says.

“It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that the messages they convey build rather than break trust,” Harmer elaborates. “Leaders need to be cognisant of their people’s concerns and remember it’s not about them, it’s about their people. They must be clear and honest, and use the trust that they’ve built over time. Think about nervous passengers on a plane during turbulence. Their initial reaction will be to look towards the air stewards for reassurance and comfort and to check that they appear calm and in control. It’s exactly the same in a work environment.”

At Metro Bank there is a focus on supporting colleagues to grow leadership skills whatever their level. The bank has put more than 300 people through its Learning to Lead programme geared at developing employees for a first leadership role and its ‘AMAZEING’ Leader course for more experienced executives. The idea of creating ‘fans not colleagues’ runs through all the company’s training, with a view to developing leaders of the future able to look after colleagues and customers while having the resilience to handle the external environment.

Harmer points out, however, that a lot of leadership traits now cited as particularly important in today’s VUCA world are by no means new. Many have always constituted leadership best practice, she says, with developing them now just particularly urgent.

“Whatever the climate, people need leaders they can trust and who provide guidance, support and recognition,” says Harmer. “These skills aren’t dependent on the prevailing environment they are inherent to good leadership. What does change is people’s awareness of how essential great leaders are. In more uncertain, volatile times weak leadership stands out.”