6 min read

Leadership when times are challenging

By Simon Taylor on Jul 21, 2020 8:22:20 AM

As we emerge from lockdown, we wait to see what the real and practical effects of the COVID 19 crisis are having on our economy, society, organisations and individuals, I thought I would avert my gaze away from attempting to predict the economic future and shift towards the leadership qualities that are going to be required across all organisations to deal with the future instead.

Over the past few weeks, I have gathered together the works of a few of the most up to date and forward-looking thinkers, both practical and academic on leadership qualities now and in the future, to try and pick a way through the most common themes they all appear to agree on as to the requirements of future leaders of organisations. I have particularly drawn on the works of Heidi Lynne Kurter, Francios Botha, Peter Drucker, and Stephan Reicher. These come from a variety of backgrounds and persuasions on the topic of future leadership, but surprisingly have more in common than they have differences. They may use slightly different nomenclature, but actually the essence behind this is the same.

Kurter believes, “The ability to inspire is one of the single most important leadership skills that separates great leaders from average ones”. She goes on to explain that while there are plenty of admirable bosses, there are only a handful of leaders who are able to infuse energy, passion and connection into their actions and behaviours. Coupled with a clear vision, mission and commitment to integrity that guides them in everything they do.

Data gathered by Harvard Business School from nearly 50,000 leaders learned “the ability to inspire creates the highest levels of employee engagement and commitment.” Further research conducted by Bain found “inspired employees are twice as productive as satisfied employees.” As a result, companies experience a 21% greater profitability, a 41% reduction in absenteeism and 59% less turnover. You certainly would struggle to put a counter argument against these figures. Even if they are at the very top end of the data range investigated, finding the median point, would still be extremely impressive.

Kurter, in line with many other longstanding commentators on leadership, finds seven characteristics that create truly inspirational leaders. Seven often seems to be the number of choice when it comes to characteristics/traits.

  1. Commitment To Values
  2. Invested In Personal Development
  3. Radiate Authenticity
  4. Skilful Communicators
  5. Encourage Unity
  6. Approachable And Inclusive
  7. Embrace Vulnerability And Risk

Certainly, these are very powerful concepts that, if you as leaders can create a genuine reality out of, will make a huge difference to your organisations emerging out of the COVID crisis, whatever industry you are in.

Botha has recently been commentating on the importance of keeping younger employees engaged and empowered within your organisation on the basis that these will be the ones with the right skill sets to develop the shape of it in the future. His thoughts and discussion papers centre around the hard and fast reality that “at some stage, a generation holding decades of knowledge and experience must be replaced by a new talent pipeline — a pipeline dominated by millennials whose loyalties are driven by a very different set of principles and priorities. The next-generation of leaders need the support of the current leadership team to craft a space for them in the organisation while building the necessary knowledge and experience to establish their own vision and legacy for the business.” Botha 2019

He finds there are three key areas of focus to achieve this:

  1. Understand the importance of purpose and impact
  2. Finding identity in the organisation
  3. Wanting to talk and share all that they do and achieve

In reading his material, it is clear that the younger leaders within the organisation have a completely different set of values and belief systems to those who currently control it. Engaging with these will secure the future of the organisation in the longer term. In short, the task of creating a value proposition to attract and retain the next generation of successful leaders should be high on your agenda and that of all organisations who wish to evolve and adapt to the expectations and demands of future industries, economies and societies.

The hugely influential management thinker Peter Drucker in his book The Concept of the Organisation stated: “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.” If this is the case, then this will require all those working within the organisation to feel that they are valued and that their entire health and wellbeing is considered as the organisations move forward out of the crisis.

Personally, I would go further with this discussion point. Now and over the next few years, organisations and their stakeholders should be willing to accept that survival and employment are the success criteria by which they should be judged and not the increases gained on the Balance Sheet or Profit and Loss Statement. If an organisation has a long term future then it needs to develop a longer self-sustaining view of itself, rather than the short term expectations of the next AGM.

My final look at a leadership commentator is the work of Reicher, Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews and author of The New Psychology of Leadership.

He begins his discussion by asserting that:

“One of the most potent and enduring myths in our society is that leadership is reducible to the power of the leader. A few special individuals are blessed with special qualities that set them apart from the rest of us and entitle them to rule. As Thomas Carlyle asserted, “Universal history … is at the bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.” If only we could isolate the qualities that make these leaders exceptional.”

Reicher goes on to further develop his thinking, highlighting that these ideas “have launched numerous studies that have strived to establish the personality characteristics that predict leadership success – none of them particularly fruitful. For such an approach misses a very obvious point: leaders only achieve anything through their followers, and ‘great man’ theories write the followers out of history”.

He believes that leadership is a group process and more specifically, it is the cultivation of a ‘we’ relationship between leaders and followers. Effective leadership, then, is not about what separates the leader from others. It is about what brings the leader together with group members and allows him or her to represent them. An effective leader is one who is seen to be one of us, to work for us and to achieve the things we value. That then isn’t about being ordinary or typical. It is about being prototypical – of representing the values and the qualities that make our group distinctive. In addition, effective leaders are not passive. They actively craft the group narrative and their own personal narrative to make the two mesh: they are skilled entrepreneurs of identity. Hence, no given set of qualities, characteristics or traits will guarantee effective leadership, for these will change according to the identity of the group.

Reicher uses Boris Johnson to highlight that: if Johnson demonstrates anything, it is that quality and qualities alone do not make the leader. Rather, it is the fit between those qualities and the nature of the groups they lead”.

Collectively, these thinkers highlight the complexity of effective leadership in ordinary circumstances, let alone those we are currently experiencing. Whatever your thoughts and experiences on what makes an effective leader, or the opposite, maybe you are currently working with an ineffective leader, not one of the above has it 100% correct. They cannot claim to have nailed it down completely. Is it down to traits as highlighted by Kurter? Is the leadership required now and in the future about building up the skills of our younger staff within the organisation as suggested by Botha? Are you more aligned to Drucker, or do you agree more with Reicher in that good leaders empower the group they lead, bringing the group and the leaders together as one?

I myself am unsure. I’ve worked for some good leaders and some appalling ones. I have probably been a good leader on some occasions and a dreadful one on others. I currently have learners who cannot praise enough the leadership within their organisation, yet at the same time and in the same industry I have learners that have huge issues with those that are currently leading them, who often comment that the leader themselves would benefit more from a qualification experience at L5 or L7 more than they would.

One overarching issue is obvious, that leadership is a hugely complex issue at the best of times and that our current ‘worst of times’ will certainly be extremely demanding on those who sit at the top of the organisation, hoping that the view below them is a favourable one.


Simon Taylor

Written by Simon Taylor

Ascento L5 Management Tutor.