Leadership today is arguably more challenging than ever before. Simultaneous disruptions are profoundly increasing the complexity of a world already difficult to predict and navigate. Employees expect more from their management and employer. Businesses have become much more than a place to work. And this is putting a lot of pressures on leaders. It’s always been lonely at the top but nowadays it seems especially so and frankly, at times, you’d be forgiven for asking ‘who wants to be a leader?’

We recently chaired a conversation with a selection of leaders at the PEI Operating Partners Forum in New York to discuss ‘the future of the workforce’. It was a lively and engaged debate made even more meaningful by the fact we were able to gather in person. A minor but incredibly significant factor given the subject. Physical proximity enhances most any human encounter after all.

It was clear from the discussion that talent and management were top of mind around the table of women and men engaged in improving the value of companies. People’s attitudes and aspirations to work have shifted dramatically and many are expecting their employer to provide not only fulfilling and rewarding (in every sense) work, but also to reflect their values, beliefs and opinions about the world. This is tricky enough for leaders but the challenge is further complicated by the inconsistent demands of multigenerational workforces. It’s easy to fall into the trap of generational generalisation but there’s no escaping the fact that, on the whole, the needs and expectations of someone in their early 20s differ from those of someone with 30 years of experience. Leaders need to appeal to both. If that’s possible.

One topic that we returned to repeatedly was the acute need for modern leaders to demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence when motivating and managing their people. This includes the capability of empathy. Historically these qualities have always been characteristics of great leaders, but have been neglected over recent years for a variety of reasons. The need for leadership to relate with a very diverse workforce and to create cultures of inclusion, so essential to attracting talent in the age of social media and instant communication, cannot be overemphasized. Now the quality of management is non-negotiable and the onus is on the individual leader/s in the organisation to embrace this. After all, people quit managers not companies and that’s as true today as it was pre-pandemic.

Corporations place increasing emphasis on their values, their codes of conduct, diversity, equity and inclusion agendas and all manner of things to enhance the contribution they make to the world and be an attractive employer. This is as it should be. However, those that don’t live their values and allow poor, and worse toxic, management styles to persist will continue to lose their people.

So, what can they do? Well, it’s in equal measure very hard and very simple: be kind. We hear a lot about micro-aggressions in the workplace and the cumulative impact they have on those subjected to them. What of micro-courtesies? Instilling civility and thoughtfulness across management, asking people ‘how are you doing?’ not ‘what are you doing?’, is a great lever for increasing workplace happiness and in turn productivity and loyalty.

Interestingly this is an area where the born-traditional businesses have a head start. Free from the fanatical pursuit of growth that pervades start-ups and newer tech businesses, the ‘old’ businesses may better understand their place in the world and the responsibilities they have as a source of security for their people. They are more a community than a gang. Focusing on marginal, empathetic gains, led from the top by visible leaders and role models would be the solid basis for an effective leadership and talent strategy.