How to lead in the age of disruption

4 minute read

Leadership is having a midlife crisis when it comes to purpose, fairness and work. As disruption becomes the new normal, it's time for a new 'humane' leadership, HR directors and leadership experts tell Katie Jacobs

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How to lead in an age of disruption

Over the past few years, it’s been hard to attend a conference and not hear the word VUCA (that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) at least once. We have been experiencing a certain level of disruption for a long time, and expecting it to increase. What we didn’t expect was for this increase to arrive via a pandemic, but COVID-19 has turned our ways of working – and leading – upside down.

According to INSEAD professor of management Gianpiero Petriglieri, leadership is experiencing a “midlife crisis”. “The current disruption has brought about a genuine existential threat [to leadership] in three ways,” he says. “First, around the ideology of capitalism and purpose. Secondly, around fairness. And thirdly, around our practice of work.”

Add to that other disruptors such as transformational technologies like artificial intelligence, as well as the looming global recession, and it begs a simple question. That question, in the words of Michael Moran, founder and CEO of management consultancy 10Eighty: “Do we need a different type of leader?”

The coronavirus pandemic has placed leadership under the spotlight. Organisations have been feted or damned in the court of public opinion for their response to the crisis. Entire operations are now based at home, with leaders working remotely. Many won’t have seen colleagues in person for months. “Our leaders have had to rise up and respond to [the challenge of the pandemic], showing empathy and enabling their teams to work in this new world, while ensuring their operation continued to deliver,” says Cheryl Allen, HR director, culture & transformation at technology services company Atos UK&I.

This unique – dare we say unprecedented – situation demands different qualities of leaders. They are qualities that those interested in people management already know to be important, but the pandemic has made them urgently so. Many of them can be grouped under the umbrella of ‘emotional intelligence’. “The so-called ‘soft skills’ are what distinguish great leaders,” believes Allen. “Those that can show empathy, compassion, inclusiveness, vulnerability and individuality are leading the way.”

A high trust model

Kessar Kalim, director of HR at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), agrees, adding that to cope with the pandemic his organisation has adopted a “high trust model approach, with compassionate and empathetic leadership”, doing away with layers of bureaucracy. “Staff expect kind and empathic leaders, as opposed to an autocrat or disciplinarian style,” he says. “Organisations with leaders who have displayed a human touch have been rewarded with extra commitment and discretionary effort.”

The “high trust” model described by Kalim lends itself to more distributed decision-making, something Moran believes is critical to organisational agility and resilience. “If leadership is distributed across the organisation, it is more able to respond,” he says.

That’s certainly something that John Evans, director of enabling services at economic and community development agency South of Scotland Enterprise, recognises. “Our CEO is focused on servant leadership,” he says. “That means enabling people to make decisions. You need a framework for decision-making but you can’t sit over everything. I can’t think of anyone in the organisation who hasn’t led in some way [through COVID-19].”

Ironically given many have been isolated working at home, Petriglieri has noticed an increase in compassion and connectivity, as leaders focus on bringing people together virtually, including for social purposes. “The tech remoteness has seen increased closeness,” he says – even if Zoom fatigue is a very real phenomenon.

HR leaders believe working remotely using these tools requires even more emotional intelligence. “Leaders who have a good personal touch are able to make others feel at ease and relaxed in virtual meetings. Those who are unable to do this effectively can alienate people,” says Kalim. Evans adds: “When you’re on a screen you are absolutely visible. If you’re not authentic, it’s magnified.”

Technology should empower

As technology becomes ever more prevalent in our working lives and tools like AI and automation become more widespread, leadership focus needs to continue to be on the more ‘human’ aspects. “We need a humane kind of leadership,” says Petriglieri. “I don’t see the use of technology as antithetical to that. It all depends on how the technology is designed and used.”

At Atos, transformational technology like advanced analytics and AI is already pretty common. “What’s key,” says Allen. “is that the technology is used as the enabler or the tool to support. It doesn’t replace leadership or the need to connect with your people.”

Fast-advancing technology also means leaders need to be prepared to grapple with thorny ethical questions. Take the use of surveillance style tools, for example, which may appeal to some as a way of monitoring employee productivity while working from home. The risks of such an approach were clearly seen earlier this year when Barclays bank came under fire for installing employee monitoring software.

According to CIPD research, 86% of workers believe workplace monitoring and surveillance will increase in the future and 73% feel that introducing such monitoring would damage trust.“Technology should be used to equip and empower managers and staff to make informed decisions and approaches and not as a policing tool,” warns Kalim.

Keeping it human

Beyond technology, the question post-peak pandemic, as the world plunges into recession, is how to keep the more human style of leadership that has emerged on the agenda, especially as businesses start to make tough decisions around closures and redundancies.

Although the impact on the British high street is already becoming depressingly clear (in one day alone in July, 5,300 job losses were announced), Evans believes that in many organisations leaders will be looking for other solutions. “A job loss isn’t a cost saving, it’s a greater cost to all of us,” he says. “We’re becoming more aware of the holistic risk.”

Allen passionately believes we must sustain humane leadership. “We have an opportunity to do something different. None of us can allow our businesses to fall back to how things were,” she says.

When it comes to making it stick, she recommends recognising leaders who are showing these skills and aligning organisational processes, from recruitment to promotion to reward, around them. “The power is in using such leaders as change agents,” she adds. “Use them to highlight what good looks like, encourage them to share best practice, challenge negative practices and help to drive culture change.”

COVID-19 has shown us all that things can change overnight. But as Moran says, it’s not the only catalyst. “In today’s economy, massive disruption is going to happen more often,” he says. “That means we need a different model of leadership.”

The type of humane leadership we have seen come to the fore in successful organisations through COVID is the type of leadership we needed before and the type of leadership we will need after. We owe it to our people to keep it on the agenda. That means, says Petriglieri, that “leaders need to ask not just what to do differently, but how to be differently.”

The People Space has partnered with 10Eighty on a research project looking at the impact of disruptors on leadership behaviours. We would love to get our readers' insights, so please take part in the short survey here. The results will be revealed in a white paper and series of virtual events in the Autumn, to which all participants will be invited

Published 22 July 2020

The current disruption has brought about a genuine existential threat [to leadership] in three ways. First, around the ideology of capitalism and purpose. Secondly, around fairness. And thirdly, around our practice of work

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