How leadership has changed

Leaders make decisions that significantly impact the lives of others. They have the ability to influence events and impact the development (forward or backward) of entire societies.

Where in the past, leaders were in control of their countries or their organizations, leading from a position of authority and influence, this autocratic style has become ineffective in a world that has become more complex and challenging,

Leadership has moved from an autocratic style towards a more collaborative approach in the last two decades. This change has been necessitated by the unprecedented speed of change in all aspects of life and business, greatly expedited and complicated by advancements in technology. The combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) will change life in cities completely. Leaders have to consider the effect the advancement on automation will have of job opportunities and the very real threat of cyberattacks.  

In the last twenty years, the pace of commercial and technological advancement has also profoundly affected the corporate world. These developments, combined with globalization, have given rise to an extremely competitive business environment that bears no resemblance to the stability of the past.

Leadership twenty years ago

Twenty years ago, the business environment was relatively stable.

Globalization had not shown its far-reaching and complicated implications yet, the 2008 financial crisis had not happened yet and neither did SARS. The internet was still a toddler, and practically no one worked remotely. Automation was a distant rumor.

Autocratic leadership was common and worked for the most part. Company leaders had the vision and informed the executive who delegated managers to lead workers to do certain tasks.

Employees were not asked for their opinions. Leadership was in full control, telling the workforce what to do, how to do it and when to do it. Leaders needed to excel at hard skills and were judged by their ability to get things done.

In this relatively uncomplicated business environment, succession planning was fairly straightforward, with the next CEO identified in mid-career as there were clear career paths to follow.

This worked because people actually stayed in their jobs to follow a career path. Potential leaders honed their skills over time to suit the leadership position they would eventually fill. Today, things are not so predictable.

Leadership in 2022

Today’s business environment is driven by commercial and technological disruption, and hampered by the ongoing pandemic. China’s zero-COVID-19 policy is a grave risk factor for global supply chains, causing havoc for businesses that deal in hi-tech goods, textiles and household goods from China.

In addition, companies face labor shortages due to the spread of the Omicron variant as well as severe talent shortages in important fields like cybersecurity and cloud computing.

Another complicating factor for business leaders is rising inflation, which leads to increased energy, material, and freight costs and threatens profit margins. Inflation also impedes consumer spending, further threatening profit margins.

These and other factors have resulted in a move away from an autocratic leadership style to a more collaborative approach. The traditional top-down hierarchical structure is no longer feasible and autocratic leadership is no longer considered the most efficient way to lead.

With collaborative leadership, management is shared among members of a leadership team who work together across sectors to make decisions, not to manage employees and oversee projects, but to work alongside employees in collaboration with teams in other departments to achieve shared company goals.

This leadership style is steadily replacing the standard top-down leadership method of the past, which saw high-level executives making decisions for employees without requiring any input from them or offering any insight into why the decisions were necessary.

Collaborative leadership in practice

For collaborative leadership to work, leaders need to be adaptable and open to new ideas and outside opinions.

This means being open to the idea that all employees have something valuable to contribute, and may even be able to add value in situations that they have no direct experience of. In practice, this new approach leads to the following outcomes.

1. Open organizations

For collaboration to take place, open communication channels are a basic requirement.

This allows employees and teams to share information and data with each other, leading to an inclusive work environment, with everybody knowing who is working on what and what challenges they face and are free to give their input.

Companies that follow this approach, make use of collaboration software to keep everyone in the loop, with leaders actively participating in communications on such platforms. In open organizations, leaders use video conferencing, online productivity tools, and other technologies to create productive and flexible teams.

2. Empowered employees

In a collaborative setup, leaders empower employees rather than manage them. As soon as a manager realizes an employee’s strengths, they make all the resources available for them to develop further and thrive with limited guidance.

Empowering people also means keeping them informed at all times about decisions that affect their work and how those decisions came about.

The idea is to empower people with everything they need to succeed and then trusting them to accomplish their goals. However, it does not mean leaving employees to their own devices.

In the best collaborative efforts, managers play the role of inspiring coach and servant leader, providing guidance but not making decisions.

According to research by McKinsey, “organizations whose leaders successfully empower others through coaching are nearly four times more likely to make fast, good decisions and outperform their industry peers.”

3. Collaboration rather than managing

In a collaborative working environment, leaders collaborate with employees rather than direct them. A manager may decide who will be in a team, but will not lead it. They may provide guidance, best practices or goals and may even participate in projects.

If they have any role to play, it’s to get the team to work well together and helping them to develop collaboration skills.

This means managers have to become experts in different communication styles, personality types and other factors that affect communication.

They also need to teach teams how to handle conflict and overcome stalemates. They may be called upon to mediate in combative discussions and basically to ensure that teams don’t disintegrate.

Guidelines for managers in collaborative leadership

  • Build relationships

Successful collaboration depends on relationships. Relationships are cemented when each person on the team is treated with respect and dignity.

In terms of virtual teams, all members must have access to the necessary technology, including a good computer, a video camera and good data connection to facilitate relationship building.

When taking meetings, be sure to ask everyone to turn on their cameras so you can see each other. It’s easier to feel connected when you can see the person you are talking to. Unless it’s an important meeting, don’t be unduly concerned about household activities going on in the background – that just makes you more relatable!

  • Establish a common goal

Collaborative teams run a real risk of getting derailed when individuals don’t understand that they are working within a team toward a common goal. In most teams, there are invariably team members who promote their own ideas at all costs.

It is up to managers to help team members see how their individual goals connect to and are integral to the overall goals of the team and the higher-level goals of the company. If you are working with a remote team, make sure that you always highlight these connections.

  • Model collaboration for your team

People learn best by example. If your team see that you are being collaborative, they will be more inclined to emulate your behavior, especially if they regard you as trustworthy. Build trust by doing what you said you would do and being approachable.    

  • Be generous with your time

Make it clear to team members that you are always available for a chat and back that up with a schedule indicating your available times.

When you do meet with a team member, give them your full attention, and be sure to talk about subjects other than work as well. While talking to them about their goals, hopes, and concerns, talk about yours too – being open breaks down barriers between people and fosters bonding. You can use this time to discover what makes the person tick so you can support them better to be a valuable member of the team.

  • Build a safe space

Create a safe space where everyone is respected and empowered to express their opinions. When employees know that they operate in a psychologically safe space, it significantly boosts their morale and general sense of well-being, leading to higher levels of productivity.

  • Guide with caution

With collaborative leadership, managers don’t take control of projects; instead, they trust the team to do their work and achieve their goals. Having said that, you may need to make sure that each team member is clear on their role and that the team has assigned roles according to each person’s expertise.

  • Develop the right mindset

In this setup, you are a leader but also not a leader. It will take time to adjust to this new leadership style and you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. Be prepared for this eventuality and be prepared to apologize and learn from the experience.   

Guidelines for executives in collaborative leadership

How can leaders lead in these times of uncertainty when the hierarchical structures of command and control have disappeared? This is a very difficult question to contemplate, let alone answer. Below are a few suggestions.

  • Keep the big picture in mind

Apart from knowing their own business intimately, leaders must stay on top of developments in their own and other industries.

To get a complete picture and understand what is really going on, both inside and outside their companies, leaders must be open to new and diverse ideas and perspectives. They need to stay informed and differentiate between the truth and fake news. They need to stay on top of market developments with a sharp eye on the competition.

  • Prepare for the impact of automation

AI and automation will be responsible for the biggest business and societal changes in the future. The speed of innovation and scale of disruption brought about by AI and automation will destroy companies that are not prepared to embrace these technological advances.

All leaders, not just CIOs, need to be prepared for digital transformation, and understand how AI and automation will affect their business and industry.

  • Embrace diversity

Companies are becoming more and more globalized, which presents a number of challenges but also benefits. While companies may be faced with communication, cultural, hierarchy, and value-oriented challenges, diverse teams bring broader perspectives, which can have a profoundly beneficial effect on acompany’s processes, culture and innovation abilities.

Collaborative leaders know how to leverage diversity in all its forms to propel the business to continued success and greater heights.

  • Honed communication skills

Today’s business world requires above-average communication skills, one of them being the ability to change communication styles if the situation calls for it.

Today’s leaders need to communicate with a global mindset. Being sensitive to other cultures, respecting others, being open-minded and showing empathy are non-negotiable attributes for today’s leaders.

Jay Sanderson, Solution Consulting Director for Infor, a cloud software company based in New York City, told SHRM: “I know if I spend more time caring about my employees, I don’t have to worry about them caring about our organization.”

  • Be prepared to adopt a new leadership style

The nature of leadership is evolving. An autocratic style is giving way to a relationship of trust; decision-making is giving way to inspiration; power is giving way to self-awareness.

The vertical chain of command with the CEO at the top is giving way to teams and group decision-making. Adapting to these changes is crucial for leaders in this brave new world.

Traditional leadership styles don’t provide leaders with the skills and techniques necessary to successfully lead in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

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