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What does leadership fit for a 21st century VUCA world look like?

13 Jul 2020 By Erik de Haan

Leaders who have more challenging and intimate conversations with staff will bring out the best in their team, says Erik de Haan

Organisational leadership today is finding itself in a rapidly changing context. Not just because of the multitude of global crises raging, but also because of longer-term changes in our society. 

Leaders and managers of all stripes and ranks have to increasingly be truly comfortable with their emotions and those of others, as they flex their influencing styles to bring out the best ideas from the team and guide them into the decision-making processes of their organisation.

This means all leaders and managers are having more challenging, intimate and exposing personal conversations with their staff and direct reports. All other more ‘administrative’ aspects of leadership will be taken over by computers or artificial intelligence – or they will be resisted as stifling, autocratic or pointless. Leaders have to increasingly get out of the way of their reports, while also deeply connecting with them.

This means leaders will have to learn much more deeply to ‘coach’ their team and individual employees. Equally important, those reports will have to be allowed to coach the leader in return. In other words, openness to everyone’s suggestions, feelings and ideas has been shown to be crucial. This includes the ability to be swayed by those contributions, to be confused by them at times but remain curious, and to not always know the answer to them while keeping calm and secure.

More and more of us are having to bring our ‘whole person’ to the workplace, to contribute the feelings, hunches and creative ideas that are being called for. That means we will have to wrestle with our demons in the workplace – with our very own, highly personal leadership shadows. Shadow patterns, born out of neglect or overuse of leadership strength, are a demonstrable consequence of all leadership, but they are also where those really good ideas and challenges come from. 

If a leader realises they are very good at gossip but as a consequence some people do not feel safe around them – or another leader realises they are very passionate and that comes through, but that people are scared of them as well – then that moment of realisation can bring great freshness and new solutions. For balance and security such observations from their teams need to be integrated into their leadership strengths.

All of this means leaders will have to open up personal conversations with employees around motivation and suggestions for change, deepen those conversations, release emotions and doubts, find ways to look at conflict and confusion together, and find creative ways to integrate the many ideas and feelings that are around, so the team innovates. Part of the challenge is to acknowledge, openly share and reflect on shadow patterns where they exist. 

Coaching for leaders means being able to take a step back and look with creative indifference at your own conversations – a step on the balcony overlooking your own conversation to observe yourself in interaction. It also means the ability to contract and recontract with your direct reports, to check if you are having the right kind of conversation and how you could help them more. 

In many cases it means being able to take a step back to work through disappointments, fear, anxiety and confusion – and contain them as a secure ‘go to’ base for your staff. At times you will not feel equipped to do that all by yourself and you may consult your spouse or your best friend, or work with a more neutral executive coach to keep yourself grounded and fair. This will help you, even in stressful times, go back to your staff with new ideas and new types of conversation, so that something becomes unstuck between you. 

Erik de Haan is director of Ashridge Centre for Coaching

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

WC1N, London

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Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity

Human Resources Business Partner

Human Resources Business Partner

Aberystwyth, Ceredigion (Sir Ceredigion)

£41,526 - £49,553 per annum

Aberystwyth University

Head of Organisational Development & Learning

Head of Organisational Development & Learning

Aberystwyth, Ceredigion (Sir Ceredigion)

£52,560 - £59,135 per annum

Aberystwyth University

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