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Leadership styles must evolve to meet today’s success criteria

Amit Choudhary
February 15, 2021

As societal and business norms evolve, the ways we lead, motivate, and manage must change, too. In the 2020s, our unpredictable present exists for about a nanosecond. The past is up for reinterpretation. And, the future is difficult to conceive.

Admirable leadership attributes from just 30 years ago seem quaint – or questionable – now. In the past, leaders sat atop an entrenched totem pole. However, today’s fast-changing ecosystem requires vision, empathy, social responsibility, and an open-minded approach to spark collaborative growth.

Let’s explore how high-impact organizational changes require adaptive leadership evolution.

Virtual and remote workspaces

The recent global health crisis made remote work an integral part of the new normal. As organizations adapt, it will be important for leaders to review the impact of a partial or complete virtual environment on the organization’s culture, employee engagement, and team effectiveness.

Future-focused leadership:
Creating a culture of trust, resilience, and responsibility is now critical. Establishing systems for regular communication and engagement will encourage smooth operations despite a lack of physical interaction. Employees need to feel connected among themselves and to the organization.

Ever-increasing diversity and globalization

As international boundaries blur, employees must collaborate productively within a multicultural environment. Managing diversity is not an option but a business imperative for sustainable growth.

Future-focused leadership:
Educating employees about cultural diversity, encouraging international rotations, and offering cognitive bias training are becoming essential for global firms. Leaders must be cognizant of cultural biases and infuse diversity into organizational DNA. Remember, statistical diversity is the first step; diversity of thought is the goal.

Uberization efficiencies gain ground

A paradigm shift is happening in the way organizations recruit and deploy talent. Many service-based firms are moving away from full-time employees and transitioning to flexible on-demand staffing. A late 2019 study found that freelancers made up 35% of the total US workforce, with the percentage on track to grow to 50% within five years.

Future-focused leadership:
Skills training and employee-friendly initiatives can help organizations boost performance and motivation. For example, at Deliveroo in the UK, more than 15,000 self-employed food delivery workers subscribe (for a small fee) to an insurance policy that covers 75% of their salary for 26 weeks in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Establishing location-agnostic work policies, clarifying expectations, building trust, and investing in productivity-supporting technology can empower an organization to manage employee expectations and maintain business continuity. The challenge before leaders is to create and protect their business culture with a fragmented workforce.

Shifting demographics

Today’s workforce is a mixed demographic bag as youthful millennials and Generation Z work hand-in-hand with seasoned Gen X and Baby Boomers. To guide them effectively, organizations and leaders must prioritize understanding what drives each group.

Future-focused leadership:
Within this scenario, unlearning and relearning together can catalyze success. Reverse mentoring pairs younger employees with senior team members to advise each other on strategic and culturally relevant topics. This and similar initiatives help firms get ahead of the curve and successfully innovate. Engagement with future customers is an invaluable tool for executives designing a company’s future.

Flat organizations encourage actionable collaboration

Increasingly, employees want to be heard and recognized for innovation and new ideas. Flat organizational structures (with little or no middle management between staff and executives) supports meaningful interactive collaboration between executives and line staff for out-of-the-box idea development.

Future-focused leadership:
It is incumbent upon leaders to foster an environment in which employees confidently express ideas. When leaders actively participate in open discussions, immediate and effective communication is enabled. Collaborative and creative next-gen workspaces often support actionable outcomes.

Fostering innovation and disruption

The Red Queen from Lewis Carroll’s fantasy 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass may have prophesied today’s world. “It takes all the running you can do to keep you in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

To mitigate VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments, leaders must internalize the concept of failing fast and moving forward.

Future-focused leadership:
To thrive in a dynamic environment, successful leaders leverage diversity to generate wide-ranging ideas, employ a fail-fast philosophy to prototype the most promising ideas, and grow those that have practical sustainability. A culture that accepts respectful dissent and non-conformity is a conducive environment for progressive innovation.

Closing note

Leading by design can help today’s leaders create a collaborative and empowering atmosphere – companywide. The essence of leadership, now, is to foster more leaders in the organization by encouraging them to learn, enhance their skills, adapt to change, and innovate so the C-suite can focus on reshaping the future, not preparing to react to it.

I encourage you to connect with me on social media and share your organization’s future-proofing best practices.

The author would like to thank Pratibha Agarwal, Jinil Raj, and Tamara Berry for their contributions to this article.