There’s no denying the world of work has changed in recent years. With that in mind, what does good leadership look like in 2022?
In its report, Changing Places: How hybrid working is rewriting the rule book, PwC describes traditional leadership styles as “increasingly outdated”. “There is a strong pull for some leaders to go back to the way things were and to use the same levers and behaviours to inspire and engage their workforces,” the report says. “While it may feel familiar and reassuring, that style of management best suits a world that no longer exists.
So, what next for leadership in the workplace? Here, Sophie Hampel, organisational psychologist and CEO of leadership consultancy Inkling Group, and Dr Samuel Wilson, associate professor of leadership at Swinburne University of Technology and co-founder of the Australian Leadership Index, describe the new qualities of a good leader as part-psychologist and sympathetic ear, cheerleader and motivator, and always authentic and beyond reproach.
Their eight leadership lessons should be heeded by any business looking to future-proof its approach to leadership at a time when we have never demanded or expected more from our leaders.
Hampel says business leaders need to be acutely aware of the impact they have on others. Just as sportspeople are considered role models, workplace leaders have the same responsibility, because they have power and influence over the general wellbeing of those they lead.
To become more self-aware, she says leaders should seek continual feedback, although it can sometimes be a challenge for several reasons. “The more senior you get, the less likely you are to get honest feedback,” she says. “In addition, most leaders are pretty busy in back-to-back meetings all day and don’t invest time to step back and actually reflect on how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, how they’re showing up, and how those things have massive impacts on others.”
Creating psychological safety, or an environment where employees feel safe to take risks, is another must-do for good leadership in 2022.
“It’s not a new concept, but the notion of psychological safety just seems to be growing and growing,” Dr Wilson says.
“Making a mistake, sharing an idea, providing feedback or airing concerns – all of those things are absolutely critical to collaboration and innovation,” Hampel agrees. “If people feel like they’re going to be shamed or criticised or blamed then they will not do those things. The historical approach of a leader being the one who sets the direction, shares their opinions and speaks first is not leadership in 2022.”
Just as the shift to working from anywhere has changed the nature of work, it’s also killed the idea that people can separate work from their lives. “We know from psychology you can’t separate work and life,” Hampel explains. “If you’ve got stuff going on at home, there’s not a button you can switch off.”
She says good leadership acknowledges that, with a focus on leading the whole person. “It’s not about not holding people accountable or having high performance standards,” she adds. “It’s about the flexibility and empathy that comes with understanding when someone’s got a sick child, is going through a divorce or has a friend with cancer.”
In a hybrid work world, ideas around trust have had to change dramatically. “People nowadays expect flexibility and the trust that comes with that,” Dr Wilson says.
However, Hampel says trusting work-from-anywhere employees is not something that comes naturally and instead is something business leaders need to learn. “We’re biased to prefer to see things right in front of us, so having to lead from a distance and trust people is a shift,” she says.
Other challenges raised by hybrid working include the need for new approaches to communication and bringing teams together. Hampel says this will become increasingly important as teams are built based on skill and availability, not location, with managers needing to create a positive culture among groups of people who may never meet in person.
“One of the big things that stands out from our work is the idea of purpose,” Dr Wilson says. “The pandemic and the so-called Great Resignation has caused people to actually think about what they are doing. These notions of the value of what you do, the purpose that you’re pursuing or, perhaps more pointedly, the lack of purpose have come to the fore.”
To lead effectively, keeping employees engaged and retaining staff by helping them see the purpose of the work they do has become increasingly important.
“Over the past year or so, the number one issue [in leadership] is the integrity of our institutions and the integrity of leaders,” Dr Wilson says. “The thing that really looms large is the principles that govern or appear to govern our leader’s behaviour and the behaviour of institutions.” In the same way, employees want their workplace leaders to act with integrity, Dr Wilson explains.
Hampel agrees authenticity and transparency are essential to integrity, although she believes they can be misunderstood in the workplace. “People think it means telling people everything about yourself, and actually that’s not always the best road for a leader to take,” she says. “As a leader, you have to navigate that balance around sharing what is useful and important for the team.”
She adds that authentic leadership and integrity come from not only knowing your values but regularly reflecting on them, aligning your behaviour to them and ensuring you create a space where your employees can also be authentic.
Diversity and inclusion might not be new leadership trends, but Hampel says they’re certainly increasing in importance. “It’s coming out in all the research around the Great Resignation that people are much more likely to stay and be engaged in an organisation where they feel a sense of inclusion and belonging,” she explains.
As this space matures, Hampel adds that successful leaders are moving beyond championing women in the workplace to looking at cultural diversity, sexual orientation, identity and disability. “There is a lot more accountability of leaders around support for people in underrepresented groups.”
Some of the most innovative businesses are adopting initiatives such as setting up shadow executive teams or boards made up of diverse people, requiring executive leaders to sponsor and provide stretch opportunities – tasks or projects slightly beyond current skill sets or knowledge levels – to an employee from a diverse group, as well as reverse mentoring.
For the most innovative companies, allowing staff to work from home is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace flexibility.
“Not being responsive to people’s requirements or desire to work from home or have some flexibility can be seen as bad faith,” says Dr Wilson.
Hampel agrees. Whether it’s setting up a work-from-anywhere policy or allowing employees to take year-long sabbaticals to travel or study, she says the qualities of a good leader include “taking a more personalised approach to flexibility and acknowledging that they have a diversity of people who need different things when it comes to this concept of flexibility.”