A modern leader is someone who deeply understands that leading with both your head and your heart is critical: a leader who is skilled not just in the 'traditional' traits of leadership, but also in being human. This was a central point of today's opening keynote at Skillsoft Perspectives 2021, where executive coach and company director Kirstin Ferguson talked about what it takes to be a leader in a working environment drastically changed by the pandemic.
Leading a virtual workforce through lockdowns and confusion
At the start of the pandemic, many leaders tried to raise morale and build team togetherness with a huge slew of virtual socialisation initiatives and tokens of appreciation: cocktail hours, gift hampers, creative online team bonding activities. But after one and a half years, that novelty has worn off, said Ferguson – showing that all these things weren't really what people needed from their leadership.
“The greatest gift a leader can give right now to their team is to stop all those hampers and parties, and instead give their teams permission to not be able to deliver everything they would normally do,” she said.
The challenge, she said, is that people are going through wildly different practical experiences of the lockdowns and safety measures, and there is no way to replicate the kind of uniform work experience and levels of productivity that they would have been used to in the office. And that is where the leader's implicit permission comes in.
“As leaders right now, the most important thing we can do is support our teams to get through this extraordinary time in history in such a way that when that team member looks back, they'll remember a positive legacy where you actually were there for them. Not a legacy where they look back and think how unreasonable your expectations were in a challenging time.”
Big picture, practical elements, small things
There's a lot for leaders to reflect on during this period, both personal and professional. Ferguson said that as a coach, she has been doing a lot of work with leaders who want to work on their self-development and personal insights – trying to figure out what kind of leader they really want to be, and how to get there.
Often, she observed, that self-development involves trying to improve their empathy and emotional intelligence in order to help their team get through the crisis of the last 18 months. “There needs to be some empathy coming out. Now, for some people that's really easy. It's comes naturally, and it's a very comfortable place to be. But for other leaders, it's deeply uncomfortable crossing that divide into the personal. I work with a lot of leaders who are technically brilliant, at the top of their game in their industry, but emotional intelligence is something that takes a backseat. And I think we've seen that leaders must have a focus on both [technical brilliance and emotional intelligence]. It's impossible for them to lead otherwise.”
Besides self-awareness and self-development, there are the practical elements of leadership: running a dispersed team, keeping the team culture together, trying to shape a vision of what they want the organisation to come out of the pandemic looking like.
Between all these, Ferguson said, a lot of 'business-as-usual' tasks that are important but not urgent have fallen by the wayside. “Succession plans, strategic reviews, other tasks that are not the immediate day to day, but are still really important for thinking about building talent and finding it.
Being a leader is ultimately about your impact on others
“Replacing the concept of the great man is that of a modern leader who understands that leadership itself is a privilege and not the domain of only the privileged few,” Ferguson said. What does that mean? Quite simply, leadership isn't just about being a big name or an industry titan; it's not just about being an innovator or being a senior person with an outstanding title.
Instead, Ferguson believes, leadership today is about the ability to inspire, motivate, and propel others forward. It is when other people repose trust in you and believe that you can guide them through any challenge they face. Leaders are judged on how they make others feel; that is an essential part of leadership, and it requires them to lead with both their head and their heart, she said.
“Regardless of your title, or what it might say on your business card or your LinkedIn profile, you are a leader. You are a role model to someone else, whether you realise it or not. So have a think about the legacy you're leaving every single day through your interactions with others.”