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The Next Leadership Evolution

“Leadership is very much related to change. As the pace of change accelerates, there is naturally a greater need for effective leadership.” John Kotter

The previous evolutionary changes in leadership have been gradual processes adapting to either human or commercial developments. Methods have gathered pace when observed to be successful and the work of early adopters has then been reinforced by the early majority. Accepted practices have shifted as the expectations of both employee and market demand.

The hierarchical leadership from the second half of the 20th Century was a result of many military veterans returning to civilian life and bringing their leadership style to the commercial world. Internal competition was rife as the majority would end up as long serving employees awaiting a pension at the end of their service. Again, a military mindset. Technology meant there was less opportunity to discover a vacancy and then move companies to progress. Employers were often suspicious of those moving as they lacked the compliant nature of the ‘company man’.

The arrival of the online world gave employees access to an infinite network. They developed a digital brand to represent themselves and did the necessary research to discover where they might find the most supportive environment to deliver their best work. Once again leadership had to evolve in order to maintain relevance and credibility. In his book Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual, James Strock observes how one of the major shifts in perception of leaders has been the move from authority implying credibility to an environment where credibility itself brings authority.

The end result of flexibility in options for employees, combined with the digital evolution of all commerce, resulted in leaders having to embrace change as an expected occurrence rather than an anomaly. People were no longer craving stability but rather development and the opportunity to learn. No longer dependent on the framework of hierarchies, employees were now able to start developing their own extensive networks.

With leaders now evolving to embrace the flexibility and constant change of their teams, came a new challenge. Whereas the majority of previous management education had pointed towards creating uniform behaviour on ever larger scales, there was now a need to acknowledge and encourage the resulting diversity. Not just diversity of the individuals regularly arriving within a business, but also the intellectual diversity that would bring greater strength to the whole.

With creative thinking free flowing and employee input bringing the ability to change and adapt to rapid market shifts, leaders now faced a new challenge. The most recent leadership evolution has been that of understanding purpose. Not just that of the leader themselves, but of understanding and creating purpose for those over which they have duty of care. The evolution of the ‘humble’ leader has seen ego diminish, empathy increase and collaborative thinking as a standard practice.

Today we face a new leadership evolution. Already a minor shift in business style and operation in the last 10 years, we will now see this leadership style as the new normal.

The evolution of Remote Leadership

What we are about to fully embrace now is the prospect of remote leadership for a large number of businesses. No longer will we be able to rely on the comfort of working in the same space. The reality is that we will not always be in the physical presence of our workforce. Technology has supported this gradual change so far, however it does not facilitate several key leadership touchpoints, which should be considered now as we move rapidly into the new working landscape.

Climate assessment
Culture is embedded with ‘the way we do things around here’ and although increased remote working may slow the embracing of a specific environment, it will still be supported through individual action. Climate on the other hand is the ‘feel’ of a business and will now become difficult to assess for the leader of a primarily remote team. With the reduced number of days you can walk into a room full of your teams, it will be essential to focus on reading climate at a specific time rather than noticing change over a few days or weeks.

Mood awareness
Great leaders are adept at assessing the biorhythms of their teams. Spending a couple of minutes in social engagement allows then the time to spot if something is out of kilter with the individual concerned. This becomes a far greater challenge when the contact is via video link and the number of possible interactions are reduced. Touchpoint motivation is essential to keep the positive plates spinning through a day. The new challenge will be developing a strength of communication that delivers the same level of engagement as previously.

Picture showing a leader engaging with their team

Visible attention and praise
Leaders need to be seen. MBWA (management by walking around) has long been a useful bookend strategy to a leader’s day. Be seen and engage. Daily contact has allowed leaders to be more accessible and be able to listen firsthand to those actually doing the frontline work. Traditionally it has also been the time to comment upon successes and deliver public praise. Leaders will now have to think about how they are going to remain in touch and able to comment with both immediate relevance and group awareness.

Collective communication
As well as providing each individual with the necessary personal interaction with their leaders, there will also be the need to find a better collective communication method than the ‘send all’ email. Great leaders speak to everyone when they stand up. They engage with passion and purpose, leaving a feeling that we are all working towards these goals and facing these challenges together. With less and less time spent in collective spaces, the group communication content and timing will become a valuable art form.

No two leaders are the same, so no two leaders will adapt to these challenges in the same way. However, the need to consider the impact if these areas are not realigned and supported through a different method is something every leader, regardless of sector, size or style, will have to embrace.

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As a leader in a crisis, deliberately think in these 4 projects

It is natural for you to think about the immediate situation when faced with dramatic circumstance. Especially when that circumstance extends well beyond the normal boundaries of your business and into everyone’s personal life. However, if you devote all your time to thinking about, reacting to and worrying about your current reality, you are leaving yourself exposed to a lack of choice about your future.

A good solution to this challenge is to deliberately think in projects.

Project One: Urgent decision making

Naturally there are decisions that have to be made in a short time frame to ensure immediate security or to avoid overcommitment in the wrong direction. Think about these in a factual and logical manner. Postpone anything that will not have immediate impact and allow yourself the time to absorb all the information if possible.

Choose a time when you next need to review and then leave the ‘urgent mindset’ behind until required. Breathe, relax and move on to the next area.

Project Two: My people

Whenever you communicate to your teams, there is one question everyone asks themselves before thinking about anything else:

‘What does that mean to me?’

Now more than ever this question is echoing the heads of every team member. Every email, phone call, video conference, is mentally prefaced with this statement in each person’s mind. When tension and uncertainty are all around us, our capacity for broad thought is severely reduced. We have to ensure our own safety before looking for ways to step outside our zone and embrace the collective challenges.

Although this may sound selfish, it is in fact the way most people naturally think and as such has to be acknowledged for any new information to be delivered successfully. It is therefore vital to consider whether you have answered the burning ‘personal circumstance’ question in everyone’s head, before moving on to proactive direction.

We actually know very little about the reality of our colleagues home lives. Although we exchange niceties on a daily basis, we are unlikely to fully understand the physical or emotional challenges they may be facing in their lives. It is not now our role to delve and discover what these might be, but instead to be even more aware and considerate when communicating, as the current climate may have dramatically increased stress-levels of a team member due to a situation we are unaware exists.

Understanding the fears and concerns of your team in a time of pressure and stress is vital in order to be who you need to be to them as a leader. Listen, acknowledge, answer what you can and then move to action.

Project Three: The current reality

Start thinking about working within the current reality by considering these three questions:

What can we do now that will support us in the future?
What should we not be doing now even though it is in our habit DNA?
What can we do differently?

The temptation when placed under pressure in abnormal circumstance, is to try and do more of everything you normally do in a working day. However, this can prove to be both counterproductive and mentally draining. Look at every part of your working process and consciously decide whether it is the right thing to be doing now. Analyse the work your teams do normally and decide whether this is achievable, beneficial to business and correct strategy.

For example, if you are running sales teams in a sector where no-one is buying, you are setting up everyone to fail, as well as risking brand annoyance or exhaustion in the eyes of your clients. Sure, there may well be the odd circumstance where a sale is made in the sector but you have to ask yourself if it is really worth the pressure and stress associated with everyone chasing this unicorn.

Perhaps now is the time to be establishing all the things we can ‘give’ to our employees and clients. We are in a position of knowledge if we work across a sector. We are speaking to many of our clients competitors and acting as information brokers in the market. Look to be the voice of calm,

Whatever the critical circumstance you find your business in currently, it will pass. Even if, as will sadly be the case, some businesses do not survive the crisis, their staff and leaders will likely emerge somewhere in the same market. People will remember the way you advised and guided without trying to bludgeon your way into short-term sales. Maintaining your integrity under a time of such pressure and stress will echo loudly and for a long time in your network.

Project Four: Future opportunities

What has become an option that wasn’t before?
What am I able to change that I have been meaning to change?

Although looking into the future of an uncertain world seems futile at this stage, it is in fact a hugely beneficial exercise. Firstly, there will be opportunities you have not considered previously that now become apparent either because of changing markets, or due to the creative side of your brain sparking in reaction to challenge. Allow the time for these thoughts to develop. Start building a picture of what your business and teams will look like on the other side. The positive mental impact is huge on both you and those you choose to engage in the process.

The pause in day-to-day running of any business also removes the ‘been meaning to change that’ excuse. Now we can change things and build the new habit in a timely and measured way. We can propose, discuss, edit and create the ideas that we have been carrying with us for a while.

Without a conscious mental effort to direct our minds under pressure, we will naturally end up spending the majority of our time in Project One thinking. The urgency of circumstance and the constant trigger of others concerned about today will act as a fence around our thought process, blocking any team support, creative planning or future ideas.

By breaking our thought process into allocated projects, we continue to be able to think creatively, to act efficiently and to be the voice of reassurance and calm for ourselves and everyone around us who needs it.

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Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

“Diversity is often regarded as a politically correct distraction, an issue of morality and social justice, but not of performance and innovation


Matthew Syed delves into the power of diverse thinking with a deep body of research delivered via page-turning narrative. Thought provoking and inspiring for both organisations and individuals alike.


Syed looks at how ‘cognitive diversity’ can be a game-changer when solving complex problems. Here, he holds up a mirror, showing us how we only look for ‘idea’ support’ in areas we know we will find positives. How the internet has fuelled such false confirmation and how we must allow the different voices of others to be heard if we are to truly benefit from their engagement in problem solving.

“Think how comforting it is to be surrounded by people who think in the same way, who mirror our perspectives, who confirm our prejudices. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view.. these dangers are as ancient as mankind itself.”

Although the book reviews past decisions of such scale as to impact the entire planet, the text also manages to be an incredibly useful trigger to different thought process in a team of any size.

Matthew Syed Consulting