Nobody aspires to a leadership position expecting an easy ride, but it’s fair to say that the last two years have tested leaders like never before. Dealing with wave after wave of the pandemic and the associated impact of repeated lockdowns on finances, operations and morale has left many leaders feeling battered, bruised and burned out. And newer crises like the war in Ukraine and the UK’s cost of living surge means the leadership landscape is not likely to get any easier.
While living in such a turbulent context makes the operations of business hard enough, it also has an impact on what people expect from their leaders. In short, it means we expect much, much more of them.The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer has found that people now expect businesses to play a larger role in society, and that businesses are more trusted institutions than government and media. Leaders are also increasingly expected to put their heads above the parapet on societal and political matters, such as in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, for instance.
According to research from Veronica Hope Hailey, emeritus professor at the University of Bath, and the CIPD, challenging times means cultivating trustworthy leadership becomes critical. In a report exploring the impact of the pandemic on leadership and responsible business she writes: “The more vulnerable we feel, the more we seek leadership from organisations or individuals. We want to be able to trust the top team to lead us through the unknown.”
Research has found that trustworthiness is based upon four foundational pillars:
- Ability: Perceptions that a leader is competent in their job role
- Benevolence: The leader showing genuine concern for others, demonstrating care and compassion
- Integrity: The leader adhering to principles of fairness and honesty
- Predictability: The leader displaying consistent behaviour over time
Benevolence and integrity in particular speak to the need for more human leadership: a leadership approach that is based on inclusivity, authenticity and that prizes and values human connection.
Authentic leaders are self-aware leaders: they are clear-eyed on their own strengths and led by a strong sense of purpose. The more self-aware leaders are, the more they are able to manage themselves (including their wellbeing and their energy), others and relationships. Being self-aware also helps with other-awareness, which contributes to the creation of genuinely inclusive cultures, as leaders understand and appreciate the strengths and qualities of those around them.
Taking a strengths-based approach to leadership can help develop more authentic leaders who then in turn are confident in drawing out the strengths of their teams. We know from Gallup research that focusing on strengths has a positive impact on team performance, with teams who focus on their strengths every day measuring 12-15% more productive.
The best leaders have always understood the value of human connection but the pandemic has made this clearer than ever. According to research by the mental health foundation, a quarter of UK adults reported feeling lonely during the winter of 2020, as the months of lockdown took their toll. Being forced apart from family, friends and colleagues made it clear just how important relationships are. For those working at home, being beamed into colleagues’ living spaces via Teams or Zoom made work truly personal: it becomes impossible to ignore someone’s humanity once you have met their children and seen into their bedroom.
In a world that feels like it’s lurching from one crisis to the next, organisations will only survive and thrive if they encourage cultures of human leadership. We need leaders that enable and empower their people to build more adaptable, purpose-driven and deeply connected organisations, with trust and psychological safety at their heart.