What’s needed for leadership in the new world of work?

25 July 2018

The very notion of leadership is shifting. Where once leaders behaved as individualistic ‘heroes on the rock’, none can now pretend to do it all alone. The pace of change and the complexity of global challenges require leaders at every level of society. The democratisation of work in the digital age also means that the young can jump into leadership without serving years in an organisation.

What qualities, then, make for effective leaders in this new world of work? Here I focus on four that are interdependent, and increasingly important: inclusiveness; openness; self-knowledge; and inspiring communication.

1. Inclusiveness

This quality is crucial to build and sustain organisations for which people really want to work. Today’s workforce is highly diverse, and a growing proportion is ‘contingent’ or freelance. McKinsey estimates that 20-30% of working age people in the US and EU now work independently. Leaders must create a sense of community and belonging, whether people are co-located or working virtually, whether they are employees or contractors.

Being inclusive means challenging our own and other people’s assumptions and default behaviour – and this requires constant attention. It means questioning unconscious biases about the ‘ideal worker’ being always present and available. There are myriad ways of getting work done in our high-tech world, and inclusive leaders will seek to understand individual preferences to draw in talent and increase engagement and productivity.

Building trust with colleagues is a great way to strengthen inclusiveness. A simple starting point is to open a conversation with a co-worker you don’t know well; be genuinely curious about them; find out how they like to work; express appreciation for what they contribute to the team and organisation. Share your own experiences.

2. Openness

As working lives become longer, we must keep learning to stay relevant and transfer our skills to new roles and new careers. Leaders who offer others the opportunity to learn and grow will be valuable and valued.

We have to be open to the unknown and ready to adapt to new ways of operating. It’s easy to become attached to the idea that our way is ‘the right way’ because it has been successful up to now. That doesn’t mean it will be the best way for the future. Innovation can emerge from anywhere. Leaders need to listen out for new ideas, whether they come from inside or outside the organisation, and keep an open mind.

The risk that artificial intelligence will replace humans in many jobs means we also need to develop those uniquely human skills we have to survive and thrive – skills such as coaching and empowering others, co-creating for better results, and developing and exercising nuanced judgment.

3. Self-knowledge

How good are you at managing yourself? In the book Future Work, I quoted Gonnie Been, a former executive at Microsoft Netherlands, on leading in the new world of work. ‘You need to be a personal leader,’ she said. ‘You need to lead your own life rather than being controlled by the boss as in the past – and if you’re able to do that you are able to lead others.’

As work becomes increasingly project-based, with teams frequently re-forming, it’s important to connect quickly with new people and find the best way to contribute. If you understand your own strengths, and make time to understand other people’s strengths, it becomes easier to take the lead confidently when your talents are needed.

There are many tools to uncover our unique strengths. As an easy reference point, I’ve found the ‘Emergenetics Profile’ useful. For deeper learning, I’d recommend the Collective Leadership programme run by Netherlands-based PresenceAtWork, having experienced its powerful impact for myself and gone on to help them spread the word.

4. Inspiring communication

Great leaders in the ancient world were often orators who could command the attention of vast crowds with a monumental vision. They were far removed from ‘ordinary’ people. Today, there’s a premium on leaders who are ‘real’ – human, even vulnerable. People who want work to be meaningful can find inspiration in leaders who are honest and true about their own struggles.

There are some inspiring voices – as well as destructive ones – on social media. Those that stand out for me amid the din are the people who really connect with their audience, share their knowledge, and help others to learn, grow and care.

One extraordinary example is a young woman called Jaz O’Hara, founder of The Worldwide Tribe, which works in refugee camps and has created a worldwide community of supporters through social media. She tells her story here: http://theworldwidetribe.com/about-us/

Leaders in large organisations could learn a lot from the way she communicates from her heart about the trials and tribulations of the people she has met and helped.

This article is an edited version of a column that was published by IWE on 15 July 2018. 

©Alison Maitland 2018, all rights reserved.

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