For starters, there’s the constant change that sends huge waves throughout an organisation – perhaps what was once a thriving office environment that allowed you to engage in friendly exchanges with your staff has now become a sea of empty desks over recent years due to the shift towards more remote or hybrid working. Whilst this flexible approach to work undoubtedly has its advantages, it has forced leaders everywhere to reassess their practices and question how best to continue to engage staff and promote collaboration when physical presence is limited.
There’s also the ever-evolving leadership theory to contend with; one minute you’re being told to be more assertive and to maintain professional distance so that you are treated with respect and authority, the next you’re being told to focus on building trust and create close bonds with your staff at both a personal and professional level. Of course, leadership styles aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive and some of the best leaders are able to combine and adapt their approach based on what the situation calls for, but this isn’t always something that comes naturally.
What’s clear is that for a leader to stay afloat, they must have a willingness to engage in continuous self-reflection and have a strong desire to learn and develop alongside the changing tides. No leader is a ‘finished product’; nor can they possibly know everything. If a leader spends too much time out at sea on their own, acting in an autocratic and authoritarian way, they will eventually deplete all their resources and drown. Every leader needs the help of some swimming aids – their team. When they are able to successfully combine the skills, knowledge and abilities of the team, it makes the journey across the vast expanse of sea become possible.
It’s time to dispel the myth that leaders are on a pedestal, acting as some kind of hero that others should aspire to. This myth is dangerous – it causes leaders to feel under pressure to show off their knowledge and to have all the answers to gain the respect of those around them. As a result, they fall into the trap of telling others what to do, rather than asking questions; their exchanges are transactional and there is little involvement of others in their sense-making process. Essentially, the leader’s own viewpoint and agenda become the frame of reference for interpreting information and influencing outcomes. Yet some of the most precious insights in teams have been gained from truly listening to each other, rather than allowing our own expectations and preconceptions to creep in.
Instead, let’s recognise leaders for what they are – human. And with that comes mistakes and uncertainty. Leaders need to accept their own dependence on others for information sharing and task completion; it’s what psychologists are calling ‘here-and-now humility’. When leaders adopt this approach, they allow themselves to become more curious about what others have to say, which encourages more open conversations within their team and promotes relationships that are underpinned by trust. Perhaps the most powerful thing a leader can do is admit that they don’t know the answer to something and that they don’t always get things right. When a leader is willing to show this level of vulnerability, they not only anchor the team in a climate of psychological safety, but they help to steer the team on a journey of discovery that is rich in learning and enables them to achieve great things.