Leading into a digital age, through a pandemic, in businesses threatened by economic contraction and disruption, knowing that the emerging future requires fundamentally different leadership acumen, is no easy task.
Those who skilled up for the 4th IR caught an early wave that has not yet carried leadership far enough. COVID pushed everyone online and corona compromised leaders had to do a massive re-think of their businesses as “pivot” and “re-invent” became practical survival tactics, instead of concepts about possible future disruptions. For many businesses, two-year future focused strategies became operational imperatives over a matter of days. Leaders had to absorb the shock and act quickly and carefully – not all were up to the task.
Leading in virtual spaces has clearly brought with it challenges of its own for leadership. The relevance and identity of leaders is in question, now more than ever. There is suddenly consensus that leadership is an “emerging field” as old ideas dissolve and new thinking takes shape to suit the current business milieu. Online meetings, connecting through screens, and COVID-19 stress, all coupled with general uncertainty about job security, requires a new “slow leadership”, where leaders are truly present, listening and engaged. The authenticity required is not about how they manage to integrate their own identities within the firm, but rather about how they are able to reach into the lives of their teams and support their efforts.
Collaboration and inclusion and consciously asking for team input are hallmarks of this slow leadership approach. It asks for results to be born in generative spaces rather than delivered on cold Monday morning desks. It asks for people to see individual identities over roles and for leaders and teams to reflect a diversity of perspectives and a richness of connection that was previously never considered. Conversations online have become critical leadership canvases and leaders are being asked to connect with employees, communities, stakeholders and the planet in new ways, leading new words and new actions. A new kind of leader, pulsing change through networks is now required.
The approach to leadership that will stand leaders in good stead is one that will enable them to facilitate emerging change no matter what uncertainty unfolds in the multiple ecologies in which they participate as leaders. Managing disruption remains critical. Disruption of internal hierarchies, of customer buying patterns and of disruption as a new focal point for alienation. As much as organisations may become alienated from their own markets, disruption also means that employees are alienated from the repeatable patterns that previously characterised their workdays. Disruption puts an additional hurdle in front of staff – requiring more adaptability from employees and leaders and demanding that volatility becomes an opportunity for growth.
Between uncertainty, disruption and being caught up in the transitions of multiple ecologies, leaders still need to remain credible agents of their organisations. They need to champion sustainability and the real ecology and paradoxically embrace the requirements of slow I’m-here-for-you leadership, while still delivering rapid change.
Who are these organisational sustainers and pathfinders? They are certainly learning-driven leaders who traverse this landscape, utilising the strengths of selected leadership theories while understanding their limitations. They adopt an immersive and individualised approach. They have a professional leadership qualification that guides their thinking and leadership practices. They have made a commitment to making a difference in the world. They are aware of the impact of their identity and the need to give their perceived role away every day, as they empower their teams, without thinking they held the stock of power to start with.
As the new “slow” leaders remain charged with delivering gainful results and are compelled to explore new territories, like many adventurers they are travelling light and starting close in, with the fire of their own consciousness. They are aware of how they create virtual and relational spaces for their teams to step into. They are more than mindful, they are ignited by connection and inclusion, listening to the silent guest and the planet as they both discover and create the new lands of leadership.