6 Skills for Next-Gen Leaders
COVID-19 put leaders to the test unlike any other in our lifetime. For some, it surfaced a reservoir of untapped strengths; for others, it revealed serious deficits in leadership skills. Regardless of where a leader fell on the spectrum, the pandemic was experiential learning on steroids.
The crisis delivered invaluable lessons on productivity, human-centered leadership, flexibility, innovation, and decisiveness in the face of uncertainty. It also raised the bar for what is expected of leaders. As we enter the post-traumatic growth phase, six skills will be critical for leaders.
Fostering employee well-being. Today’s workforce is increasingly fragile. Massive disruptions to every facet of life continue to impact workers’ well-being—with grief, depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, and addiction at all-time highs. This is taking a toll on productivity. For example, American Psychiatric Association research reveals that employees with unresolved depression experience a 35% reduction in productivity.
To add to the equation, organizations are now dealing with reentry stress. Many people just adjusted to working at home, and now they’re being asked to return to the office. Some are eager to come back; others fear potential COVID exposure, resent having to leave their families, dread commuting again, or worry about losing the freedom and productivity they’ve gained working from home. Workers are feeling stressed, and it’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that their stress is contagious. The reality is people need more warmth, comforting and understanding than prior to the pandemic.
Hundreds of evidence-based research studies show the direct link between employee well-being and productivity. Managing employees’ emotions and building work environments that foster a sense of well-being is no longer relegated to HR professionals and corporate wellness programs. It is at the top of the agenda for every manager.
Projecting confidence in the face of uncertainty. COVID was a crash course in leading through uncertainty. Leaders needed to convey optimism when people desperately needed hope, to calm fears while coping with an alarming reality, and to make critical decisions when so much was unknown. These skills will be essential for leaders, as all predictions are the world will become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Changing the tire while driving the car. The urgency created by the pandemic took away the luxury of time to think, adjust to change, and adapt behaviors. Life and business had to continue while new processes and protocols were put in place, modified and then revisited. Shifts needed to be made on the fly. Finding new ways to get work done became essential. Seeing what was possible during the pandemic is raising expectations for leaders’ flexibility to accept challenges, agility to deal with challenges easily, and ability to help others to overcome rapidly changing realities.
Connecting, not just communicating. Prior to the pandemic, there was an unspoken code to keep one’s personal life out of the office. COVID blurred the lines between work and home. Suddenly, we were meeting with people from their bedrooms. Unflappable, polished professionals were giving presentations from their closets, trying to escape their noisy kids and barking dogs. We witnessed peoples’ lives and struggles in a more personal way and forged a new level of intimacy. Communication became more than conversations about goals, projects, and priorities. Leaders quickly learned that connecting with their team and supporting them in managing their lives outside work is critical to employee well-being and productivity.
Leading on a level playing field. The pandemic decentralized the workplace. Hierarchies are less evident in a virtual workplace. Zoom meetings are more informal and democratized—everyone is in the same size square, the same distance apart whether they’re the CEO or the newest person on the team.
The combination of the remote work and the shared crisis made it safer to admit vulnerabilities and anxieties, ask for help, and offer observations and ideas—including ones that questioned and disrupted the status quo.
Months of remote work have spawned a more independent and self-directed workforce. Workers gained a new level of autonomy with the freedom to manage their priorities and choose how, when, and where they work as long as they get the job done. Research shows that autonomy is closely linked with improved job satisfaction and productivity.
Workers will continue to want their freedom. Leaders will need to thrive in an environment where workers increasingly demand autonomy and have little tolerance for highly directive managers and organizations that do not give employees a voice.
Managing energy. A 2021 study conducted by Leadership IQ found that leaders are burning out at record rates. Burnout is the new epidemic and promises to be a real threat to productivity. The greatest challenge for leaders now may be to sustain energy in themselves and their teams when it feels like the whole world is exhausted. For leaders, that requires psychological stamina.
In the heat of the pandemic, life was frightening, but it was also exciting. A constant flow of adrenaline energized leaders for the challenge. However, in the home stretch, conditions are not as exciting. What’s needed is perseverance and endurance.
The critical skill for leaders is the ability to manage energy—both their own and that of their team members. Effective leaders know when and how to replenish their energy. They also recognize that their team’s energy is not a given. They understand the power they have to generate vitality and enthusiasm in the people they lead.
A rethinking of personal priorities, a strong job market for knowledge workers, vaccination mandates, and return-to-office policies are driving people to leave their workplace in record numbers. Leaders skilled in managing today’s business environment will be critical to attracting and retaining the motivated workforce needed to succeed in the days ahead.