By Thom Dennis, CEO, Serenity in Leadership
Successful business leaders may previously have been visionaries of their brand, expert decision makers with a growth mindset and possessed extraordinary levels of energy.
However, the qualities needed to be a good leader in 2021 have changed vastly due to the seismic pressures of the ongoing COVID-19 situation and the events that have brought suppressed and ignored social issues to the fore.
In response to the pandemic, leaders have had to formulate effective crisis management schemes, show agility during lockdowns, repeatedly re-plan to meet the changing needs, navigate the varied transitions of working from home, deal with redundancies, cope with a collective rise in burnout, and begin to look at issues like BLM and harassment with new eyes whilst maintaining team spirit with physically separated teams.
Different circumstances call for different styles and attributes of leadership and we have certainly seen some shining examples of global influencers and inspiring business leaders in the last year. Unfortunately we have also seen incredibly poor leadership.
These are 10 attributes that every great leader needs in 2021.
Resilient leaders don’t let failure dishearten them; they understand losses are temporary and use them to their advantage and to learn; they are generous in the face of others’ needs. Our current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) environment means an agile approach to change is essential, as is the need to be one step ahead. Having a big picture outlook and a willingness to take early decisions is key. Whatever your political standpoint, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel is extremely good in a crisis. Whilst other hospital systems came crashing down in the first wave, Germany had so many ICU beds, it flew in Italian, Belgian, Dutch and French patients.
Effective leaders are humble, have a clear vision and know when their contribution is needed and when it is best to let others take the floor. They build on the capability of their team first and welcome input from all stakeholders, and then look for new opportunities to grow or do better. We all have an ego but those leaders who are in command of theirs are patient, often self-less, don’t require gratitude or ego-stroking. A survey of 105 computer software and hardware firms revealed that humility in CEOs led to higher-performing leadership teams, increased collaboration and cooperation and flexibility in developing strategies. A leader who has demonstrated these attributes throughout his extremely varied career is Rory Stewart, the former Secretary of State for International Development.
Employee welfare is a hot topic with concerns rising about mental health and physical safety during the pandemic. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that maintaining morale is key to thriving, and actively care about employee wellbeing. They have a heightened awareness of mental health including the effects of, and needs around trauma, grief, bullying, harassment, stress and PTSD and effectively support workers through this period. At the start of the pandemic Ally Financial CEO Jeff Brown was quick to provide leadership and responded by showing care and generosity to employees by moving most of the 8,700 workforce to work from home in just a few days, including hustling equipment to people who needed it, along with getting them set up with internet. The company’s already-existing financial, medical and mental health benefits were well designed to help employees through a crisis.
Inclusive leaders are people-oriented and do not value one more than another and openly look for different ways of thinking. The best leaders check for unconscious bias, starting with themselves, and strive to make the workplace an equal environment for all. They actively welcome diversity as a real asset with great potential, not a tick box. In Latin America, John Deere’s head of HR, Wellington Silverio, launched a comprehensive D&I program in 2016, which has now touched more than 13,000 employees in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico by having a leadership team that promotes—and a workforce that reflects—the global diversity of its consumers.
Being a responsible leader is about being able to shape the business by making strategic yet informed ethical judgements. These leaders appreciate the crucial importance of creating the right culture, have a clear understanding of the values and goals for the business, and know how to communicate them. This means listening openly and displaying moral courage, long-term thinking and value-led collective problem solving. Ruth Bader Ginsburg demonstrated great traits of the responsible leader, for example effectively teaching the then all-male Supreme Court that discrimination against women actually existed.
New Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris has broken barriers, remained rooted and now embodies the hopes of young women all around the world. Trailblazers tackle problems and find solutions in ways others can’t. These leaders are resilient in the face of failure and keep going long after others have fallen away. Greta Thunberg continues to challenge world leaders to take immediate action against climate change.
Leaders who are authentic promote transparency, honesty and openness within the workplace because they know that it ultimately builds trust. We need to talk the talk and walk the walk to show integrity. Honest leaders keep to their word, follow through on promises and deliver on time. They know how to effectively manage expectations, even if that means delivering bad news. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the incredibly successful outdoor equipment company Patagonia, has lived by his principles and created a continuously ground-breaking organisation based on his values.
An accountable leader takes responsibility for their actions and steps up when they are needed. They are not afraid to apologise if things go wrong, nor do they blame others for their mistakes. Rather, they endeavour to fix and learn from them. The first female president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, mother to seven children and head of an organisation with over 32,000 members of staff, admitted it was a mistake to override part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland to prevent shipments of vaccines entering the UK and rectified the mistake within hours, asking to be judged at the end of her term.
Inspirational leadership is fuelled by passion and purpose. Leadership like this is contagious. An inspirational business leader motivates everyone around them, trusts them and encourages them to feel as passionate about the business as they do. Barack Obama offered hope and inspiration to his country by being both open and vulnerable.
Paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues, listening well and being personable are enviable characteristics of a great leader. Great leaders simplify complex problems to be able to focus in on what really matters, delivering information in a clear and concise fashion. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand led her country through the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019 with courage and determination. Since then she has combined a willingness to make hard and timely decisions with a consistently high level of communication, demonstrating openness, honesty and vulnerability. She is perhaps today’s shining example of all the 10 attributes outlined above.