It requires guts to be a leader in the future workplace – here are some tips to make it work

As four generations combine in offices and technology evolves at dizzying speed, Lynda Holt offers leadership advice

With much of the rhetoric about what makes a good leader being both out of date and unachievable, it’s no wonder many leaders – both new and seasoned – feel out of their depth, stressed and exhausted.

These feelings trigger a low-level fight/flight response leaving you grasping for control, trying to exert your authority, or even withdrawing emotionally in an attempt to quiet your frazzled nervous system. While this is a normal human response, it’s not a good leadership look.

Leadership is not as complex as the hundreds of theories, models and buzzwords might imply. Leadership is about deep human connection, truly seeking to understand each other and then creating a mutually beneficial path towards a defined mission.

Connection enables you to do what great leaders do and it also helps you calm your own nervous system. This changes your neurochemistry, enabling you to function better, giving you the bandwidth to understand others’ perspectives and the empathy to solve problems together.

Before you say ‘ah, but’ and list all the reasons why this is not possible, think about ‘what if?’.

What if our teams were all bought into the mission and pulled their weight? What if people treated each other with respect, could trust each other to do what they said they would and to have your back if something goes wrong? What if bullying, stigma and inequality disappeared and people could bring their authentic self and their unique talents to work?

Our workplaces are evolving; leadership behaviour must evolve too. How and where people work continues to change, people’s expectations and commitments change and many have greater mobility and job choices. 

This evolution is complex and multifaceted, but there are three areas that every leader needs to pay attention to in the context of their own workplace. These are:

  • Generational needs: in many organisations there is a widening gap between leadership behaviour and the needs of younger people, in part because leaders are not adapting at the same pace as the workforce is changing.  

  • Social pressure around issues like mental health, gender, racism, and poverty: these will vary from industry to industry and in different parts of the country. You need to be both aware and able to speak about issues in your area.

  • The long tail of Covid: many people have reevaluated their priorities and some are working with very frazzled nervous systems, making them less flexible, less tolerant and less able to make decisions.

With four different generations in most workplaces, an inclusion agenda that might feel complex for some and an unrelenting work pressure, it sometimes feels like you can’t do right for doing wrong.

It’s time to step back and re-evaluate leadership, what people want from their leaders and how you might start to deliver on that while still getting the job done.

Good leaders create an environment that meets people’s need for belonging, significance and contribution. To do this, you need to understand what drives people, what they believe in, and what they are prepared to be part of.

Connection, meeting people where they are, seeking to understand their reality, their concerns and their needs will, at the very least, help them feel seen, heard and valued. It will probably also give you many of the answers you need to help create a high-performing, on-mission, engaged team.

It’s quite possible you’ve developed your leadership style based on how you wanted to be led. The challenge with this is the lag between what you wanted and what the Gen Zs you might lead want. 

Many leaders are in Generation X, so between their early 40s and late 50s. These people are company loyal, stay in the same organisation for many years and, at the same time, they are independent, self-reliant and expected to work for what they want – including training. 

Gen Zs are not company loyal, they are cause loyal, and they expect flexibility, fair pay and to do meaningful work. They also expect you to pay attention to their wellbeing and mental health.

If you find yourself comparing the behaviour, attention span or stamina of your younger team to what might have been expected of you, or indeed what you might deliver now – and you will, you’re human – think about the price you’ve paid in terms of feeling valued, your mental wellbeing and your job satisfaction.

It might be time to reframe our expectations, our view of hierarchy and roles and think about what we are trying to achieve.

Here are a few ways you can lead people towards a culture you and they want to be part of.

Pay attention: people will tell you how to connect and engage them.

Lead with a mission: most people want to be part of something they believe in and while individual motivations may vary, they want to contribute their ideas as well as their labour, so let them.

Be authentic: you can’t hide. If you want people to follow your lead you have to model what you believe in and what you want to see from them. You need to be able to articulate what you value, believe in and expect, however vulnerable this might make you feel.

Build inclusive and diverse cultures: create opportunities for connection, conversation and the sharing of views to foster belonging and give people the opportunity to learn from each other.

Wellbeing and mental health matters: burning through people the way we might have in the past is not an option – “toughen up or ship out” is not a leadership strategy. We are in the game of meeting people where they are and working from there.

The real art of leadership is in creating an environment where people can flourish, sharing the why and the what of your shared mission, and then making sure you don’t get in the way of the who and the how.

This takes both guts and grit, it’s also how you get to shape the future of leadership.

Lynda Holt is professor of social leadership and CEO of Health Service 360