It is nearly impossible to talk about leadership today without first acknowledging a few factors. Chief among them: We are living at a time when people are questioning what it means to be a leader and rethinking the expectations of those who are chosen to do so. How does one approach leadership in this rapidly evolving world? Perhaps the world of business transformation offers some guidance.
There are qualities leaders should embody in any situation: integrity, persistence, objectivity, to name a few. But being actively involved in the transformations of hundreds of companies has shown that certain strengths are required for different times, and especially during great change.
As leadership evolves to meet the needs of our rapidly shifting world, these are the seven elements that become most important, the critical characteristics one must embody when leading through disruption:
- Communication: The most critical attribute on our list, in a business context, communication refers to the leader thinking of themselves akin to the chief communications officer. In other words, one must not only set the strategic vision – where you are going and how you will get there as a team -- but also develop and articulate clear messaging so this vision is easily and widely understood.
- Urgency: In times of great disruption, if you are not making decisions quickly, it can be just as destructive as making the wrong ones. You must drive execution. This means some decisions will be made without having the optimal level of input and information. The key is to make decisions that are “nearly right, but now,” and then pivot, if needed, when new information becomes available.
- Collaboration: Success will rest on the ability to engage the entire leadership team and other key stakeholders around a common vision and shared goals. This becomes critically important at various points throughout planning and execution. These groups not only will help to solve problems and navigate roadblocks, but they also will become evangelizers of your strategic vision, helping to communicate the vision broadly and inspiring greater followership among stakeholders.
Focus on your team, championing others, and calling out their achievements, while inspiring, motivating, and leading by example. One phrase that always has stood out to me is, “never on your own.” In times of change, it needs to be your mantra.
- Credibility and authenticity: Credibility is an important leadership attribute for any situation, but when leading through change, this becomes even more critical. What shapes credibility? There are many building blocks. From a pragmatic standpoint, planning and sequencing various components of the plan and setting achievable milestones can certainly play a role. But so do so-called “soft skills” such as acting with consistency and reliability, being a moral compass, having integrity, and remaining calm and unflappable.
- Fearlessness: In times of disruption, you must be brave enough to make the tough decisions. But that is not the only area where fearlessness is important. You also must be confident and bold enough to remain optimistic, even as you navigate difficult times. It takes a great deal of energy to counter pessimism – and in times of change, you will encounter plenty of it. The key is to be brave and steadfast in spite of it. Adopting a state of mind centered on personal growth can help – the ability to see change and challenges as opportunities rather than setbacks.
- Strategic mindset: Good leaders in disruptive times have an ability to see the big picture and understand the steps needed to achieve the desired outcome. But great leaders also have the grittiness to recognize what is realistic at a tactical level, what is achievable, and the timelines needed to execute effectively. This knowledge, plus the ability to be both analytical and pragmatic, helps leaders to simplify complexity – an important component to a strategic approach.
- Empathy: No one is immune to the fact that change is difficult; even the most enlightened among us have moments of struggle. When leading through disruption, you must never lose sight of this fact. You need to consider what your stakeholders are thinking and feeling at all times. Especially when the disruption is severe or new, there is a good chance these feelings will include fear, anger, resentment, and, once again, a dose of pessimism. You need to consider, from a place of genuine curiosity and understanding, just where these feelings are coming from so you can open a dialogue, address any issues, and bring people along on your journey.
It has often been said there is no leadership without followership. The best leaders rely on their emotional intelligence to help motivate and inspire those around them.