Defining Good Leadership in an Uncertain Future of Work

The future of work is uncertain and complex. With the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, the corporate world is changing rapidly. Leaders need to guide their organizations through change and challenges that they cannot yet foresee. In addition, with the ongoing pandemic, gaps and deficiencies in leadership abilities and thinking will be exposed quicker.

What does this mean for leaders like you? On top of acquiring common core leadership skills and keeping abreast with technological advancements, it also means you will need to revisit the relevance of your definition of leadership. Very likely, what good leadership looks like could have changed. In this blog post, we will talk about how managers like you can refresh your leadership definition and lead with a new lens, i.e., with an agile mindset, so that you can continue to make a significant impact while staying in sync with the new demands of consumers and the workforce.

Instead of going too deeply into leadership theory, our aim is to support you to take action quickly. You will find in each section some actionable tips that you can immediately put into practice and raise your self-confidence. Read on to discover how you can become a future-ready and effective leader who is agile and achieve outstanding results even as leadership situations and direction continue to evolve.

The Fundamentals of Leadership

Let’s examine leadership at a fundamental level. As we define leadership in this article, you’ll find the following descriptions evergreen and remain authentic and relevant in the future of work.

10 Definitions of Leadership in the Complex and Uncertain World

1. Leadership is Influence

John Maxwell said, “Leadership is influence.” Often, the ability to influence people is one of the critical measurements of leadership effectiveness. Influence takes place through online and offline interactions, ranging from writing like emails to day-to-day workplace communication. Leadership influence is expected in activities like casting a vision, planning, organizing, and coaching teams for higher performance. With excellent influence, you’ll find setting direction or strategies for an evolving future much more effortless. One thing is clear – If a leader cannot encourage employees to achieve a vision with him/her, then it’s unlikely that s/he will be recognized as a great leader. This applies no matter which area of leadership the leader is practicing – political leadership, business leadership, religious leadership, or organizational leadership.

A great leader can influence various circles of people to think and act in a certain way. This is true even if one does not have a formal leadership role. Developing strong interpersonal skills then becomes necessary in effective leadership. For example, if you can create a deep understanding of what motivates people in your business and learn to manage human feelings and power dynamics, half the work in influencing people is done.

A leader’s job doesn’t just end at the company’s doors. For example, in a business setting, a leader must understand what matters to the stakeholders outside of the business and the general community. Understanding various viewpoints is crucial since it helps him/her establish authoritative voices in the corporate environment.

You might be wondering – how do great leaders even begin to develop leadership influence? In our view, the ability to influence people is less of a skill set. Instead, the power lies in having the right mindset. A person is driven to continuously understand what other human beings want, desire, and yearn for as they come together to live and work in one ecosystem.

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Action Steps for You

  • Increase your ability to inspire people by developing emotional intelligence (EQ). Daniel Goleman, the world’s leader in EQ, has said that “high IQ will get you through the door, but EQ sets you apart from everybody else.” In our experience working with leaders around the globe, we have noticed that it’s the level of emotional intelligence that differentiates a great leader from a mediocre one.
  • Continue your self-awareness journey so that you can be others-aware. At ACESENCE, we help clients achieve this through our CliftonStrengths assessments, feedback, and corporate training.
  • Develop trusting relationships with your team members by being genuine, honest, and authentic. John Maxwell said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know much you care.” Make it a point to stay connected to the ground through both formal and informal dialogues. If your presence is not felt, neither will your leadership influence.

2. Leadership is Thinking Critically and Strategically

Not only are future-ready leaders equipped with superior soft skills as described above, but they are also strategic thinkers and master problem solvers. They examine issues from multiple perspectives. They also consider various levers they can influence to achieve maximum impact more efficiently. Strategic leaders understand the bigger picture. They know intuitively how every action impacts something or another person in the system. They know that every action causes a reaction, every investment has a benefit or cost. They look at all the equations and all the balances before deriving the best possible solution based on current information.

Strategic leaders are not afraid to ask questions or seek advice. They don’t pretend that they have all the answers. In fact, the most significant value a critically-thinking leader brings is by asking the hard questions that most people won’t ask.

Effective leaders act fast but are not impulsive – With healthy self-confidence, they take the time they need to ask the right questions instead of rushing into ill-considered decisions that deliver poor results.

Strategic leaders are also deeply aware of the leadership imperative to deliver outstanding results with diminishing resources. Besides having a clear vision, they are cautious about the approach to achieving stellar results – a leadership strategy that promotes work at a sustainable pace, ensuring corporate longevity, and continued business success that will motivate people to contribute and be part of the greater vision.

Action Steps for You

  • Review your personal development roadmap. The great leaders I personally coach, despite being time-poor, invest considerable time and energy to continuously refine their soft skills, supreme project management skills, and strategic decision-making abilities. This is something you can do right away. With consistency and discipline, you’ll see your efforts compound over time.
  • Set up a personal learning schedule where you read extensively to develop a deep understanding of different viewpoints and disciplines. Get to know emerging trends. This could be in the form of books, articles, or blogs on various topics related to leadership. You could also attend leadership development programs at least a few times a year to learn from experienced professionals and build a network of peers with similar interests. At ACESENCE, we have a few online programs that are friendly for busy leaders like you.
  • Agile Thinking and Leadership Foundation Program – an introduction to agile leadership and practical steps to get started
  • Agile Thinking and Leadership Intermediate Program – Putting into practice your learning from our bestselling book, the “8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility.”
  • Agile Thinking and Leadership Advanced Program – a 21-day challenge where you’ll expand your leadership styles and effectiveness by using the 8 Paradoxes as well as the Five Inner Voices of Leadership Agility.

Check out our Leadership Agility Force, and receive short implementation pointers in your email.

Multi-Ethnic Office Conference Room Meeting: Diverse Team of Top Managers, Executives, Share Digital Tablet Computer Talk. Businesspeople Discuss Strategy, do Analysis.

3. Leadership is Honest and Trustworthy

“Leadership is an honest business,” a client of mine said, and I fully agree. Ultimately, the best leaders I have worked with are often role models and lead by example. They earned my loyalty and trust because they showed me what it meant to be an empathetic communicator, a caring and tough manager, a hard worker, and a loyal colleague. With consistency, these leaders win trust. Trust, the glue that holds teams together in good times and bad, needs to start from the top. Great leadership begins when senior leaders also show that they are trustworthy by consistently walking the talk and leading by example.

Congruent with the worldwide research of resilience and engagement conducted by Marcus Buckingham and the ADP Research Institute, with the vision of assisting leaders in becoming more engaged and resilient in their own lives, as well as suggesting methods for developing engagement and resilience among workers, they found that:

  • Employees that trusted their team leader completely were 14 times more likely to be fully engaged.
  • Those who totally trusted other coworkers, the team leader, and senior management were 42 times more likely to be highly resilient.

Trust is everything. It’s far easier to perform at our best when we don’t have to worry about looking over our shoulders or protecting ourselves against unethical workplace behaviors that erode confidence, such as verbal abuse, bullying, or micromanaging. Imagine yourself being in a workplace where you don’t feel safe when every mistake you make is magnified.

Action Steps for You

  • Develop a strong leadership brand. Consider personality key traits of leaders who you trust and measure yourself against that. If you were to develop a strong personal brand – one that inspires trust and confidence – then decide which of those personality traits to amplify and be more intentional about. Your leadership brand is “what others say of you when you are not in the room”, so take a good look at the employee experience that you are creating.
  • If you are a leader in senior management, then your aim must be to encourage the next group of managers under your wings to develop particular skills that inspire trust and confidence. In other words, it’s not about you alone but the overall consistency of other leaders in the leadership team.

“Your leadership brand is “what others say of you when you are not in the room”

At ACESENCE, we help clients describe a solid personal brand using CliftonStrengths and values.
Check it out here.

Effective Leadership in the Future of Work – Refreshing Your Leadership Definition

Given the rapid rate of change, leaders need to urgently rediscover what great leadership means today. In our line of work, we have noticed that executives who rely only on outdated leadership models are increasingly stressed out by the volatility and decreased control. Those dependent on only one dominant leadership style also face more resistance and pushback as they deal with a multi-generational and global workforce. The results and outcomes for these leaders begin falling slowly at first, and should they persist with the old ways, they eventually crumble exponentially. Over time, warning signs appear:

  • Exodus of talent
  • Increased workload
  • High burnout rates
  • Shrinking resources and funding
  • Falling revenue
  • Poor employer branding

Those who ignore the signs eventually fail to make an impact and fade into irrelevance.

So if you want to be a great leader in the future of work, understanding leadership with a new lens will help you become adaptable and flexible. You can do this by leveraging strengths to expand your range of leadership styles instead of just relying on one. To transform and level up into an effective leader for the future, your journey begins at a fundamental level, your mindset. Embracing an agile mindset (or being guided by leadership agility) will allow you to be engaged, resilient, and continuously effective, even in an uncertain future. This not only puts you in a position to succeed as a future-resilient leader. It also enables your team to survive and flourish despite any disruption in your business.

In the following sections, we share our insights from the field. Through our exclusive observations and ongoing work with leaders, we glean this invaluable learning to help you steer the ship through unrelenting waves of change and volatility. The following aspects shared below have emerged with greater importance and prominence with every leader we coach and transform.

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4. Leadership is Human-Centered

Beyond empathy, good leaders bring human connections back into day-to-day management in workplaces. They remind us it’s safe to bring the human side into organizations. A human-centered leader is curious about other human beings in his/her workplace. By knowing your people intrinsically – their needs, aspirations, fears, and motivations – you’ll build trust rapidly.

With the focus on mental health, good leaders understand that taking care of employees is one of the most fundamental ways to show human-centeredness in leadership. Integrating wellness into organizations through policies is only one example. When dealing with disruptions caused by the pandemic, human-centered managers, for example, understand that disturbances affect each employee differently. That’s why they are attentive to providing support in various forms. Ultimately, it’s about examining the answer to this crucial question – what will it take for the human beings in my organization to flourish and thrive?

Action Steps for You

Inspiring leadership begins when a leader inspires people to achieve great results, not when you become a star performer yourself. Invest attention to get to know the strengths of your group of people. Find out what inspires them, what they yearn for in work and life, and how you can help them become the best human being they want to become. , Lead with human-centeredness, and you can expect high employee engagement and talent retention.

In doing so, you’ll inspire them to be more and achieve goals together with you.

Some suggestions on how you can get started.

  • CliftonStrengths assessment for yourself and your team. You can use other instruments but be careful not to “pigeon-hole” people or overgeneralize what they can or cannot achieve.
  • Include strengths development as an integral part of your performance conversations so that you’ll appreciate the uniqueness of every single individual, focusing on the human experience.
  • Invest in management training like coaching skills, performance planning, giving constructive feedback, increasing psychological safety.
  • Take decisive action and initiate a campaign to increase mental health and employee well-being. The fight against burnout needs to start now. There’s nothing worse than a leader who don’t know or care enough about if employees are thriving or suffering.
  • Engage regularly in conversations with employees to widen your perspectives. Don’t assume that you already know what’s on their minds. Stay curious because it’ll protect you from being ignorant to the many viewpoints and complexities in unique individual situations.
  • Be a leader who personalizes an employee’s experience. Engage them the way they want to be engaged, not the way you want to engage them.
  • Look out for differences and appreciate them. With a mindset and belief that “you are different from me – hence you are valuable,” you’ll constantly learn and relearn about others.

5. Leadership is Nurturing More Successful Leaders

Great leaders know that they cannot do it all alone – they need to bring out the best in people. They know that their primary role is to unleash people’s potential, not stifle it. In doing so, they inspire a sense of enthusiasm and ownership within the organization. In other words, they create such an empowering culture within the organization so that their teams will go the extra mile to achieve results.

Did you know that out of the thousands of leaders who have taken the Agile Leadership Superpower Quiz by ACESENCE, 25% are Developers? That means helping people grow and develop is naturally motivating for them. So the question we need to answer is, what will it take for you to bring out the best in people? Is your current arsenal of management skills sufficient?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the future workforce. Given that millennials will soon comprise the majority of the workforce, it is worthy of understanding workplaces that will attract and inspire them. According to 2021 Fortune Best Workplaces for Millennials, a survey involving 300000 millennials in the United States, and a study about how millennials want to work and live by Gallup, here are the findings of what millennials want:

  1. Fair pay and personal meaning 
  2. Leaders who support a diverse and inclusive workplace, including benefits that go beyond parenthood
  3. Ethical leaders who are open and transparent
  4. Employers who cares about their well-being

What does this mean to you as a leader?

What’s meaningful to you might differ from what the Millennials (and Gen-Z) want, so your leadership development programs would have to adapt to new demands. In addition, given their leadership vision might look different from yours, the skills and attitudes they want to be developed in would vary as well. For example, millennials tend to want managers who are coaches instead of bosses (being told or instructed), so review the effectiveness of your leadership development approach for this group.

Action Steps for You

  • Help teams use their strengths every day to increase engagement and profitability. A very comprehensive Gallup study showed that “strength-based development” leads to:
  • 10% to 19% increase in revenue
  • 14% to 29% increase in profit
  • 3% to 7% higher customer engagement
  • 9% to 15% increase in employee engagement
  • With higher productivity and profitability, reduced turnover rates – ultimately leading companies down the path to success.
  • Develop coaching skills and basic facilitation skills in your managers and anyone in leadership positions. Go beyond telling, one of the least effective forms of developing leaders. Good leaders will need to expand their leadership skills and leadership styles so that they maximize their positive impact on others.
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6. Leadership is Inclusive and Cocreating

A great leader creates an environment where diverse views can come together. This is important because a report from McKinsey showed that companies with gender diversity and ethnic diversity on their executive teams are 25% and 36% more likely to outperform others, respectively. 

Given the strong business case of diversity on executive teams, progress is, however, slow. As of 2019, only 15% of the executives are women (based on McKinsey’s global dataset), and 14% are ethnic minorities. Moreover, more than a third of organizations on the dataset still have no women on their executive teams.

What leaders need to look into is how to create a workplace culture in such a way so that diverse voices can be heard. Every person’s unique contribution needs to be valued. Introducing diversity in numbers alone, however, is exclusion. The lack of inclusion could lead to silos of employees, failing to capture the perspectives and ideas of minorities.

Action Steps for You

  • Great leaders need to move beyond the traditional view of diversity – where people are hired based on their demographic characteristics – to a more expansive view of diversity, which includes “diversity of thought, perspective, experience, and background.”
  • Establish a values-based culture that values diversity and inclusion as key factors to success. The first step is to establish a clear set of shared values, communicate them consistently across the organization, and have leaders role-model them daily. Create a mindset where “you are different, hence you are valuable.”
  • Learn and share about unconscious bias. The more we learn, the better our chances to overcome the stereotypes that stifle innovation and creativity.
  • Empower people by giving them a voice (i.e., letting them give feedback without judgment.)
  • Help each group of people learn about one another, fostering mutual respect and understanding. Encourage non-conventional voices and avoid groupthink.

7. Leadership is Future-Oriented While Safeguarding the Present

“How do I ensure my business succeeds today while preparing for the future” is a typical coaching topic clients bring to our conversations. This question has probably been asked for centuries, but today, our need to plan for the future is even more critical. Your business survival depends on it.

Effective leaders are constantly striving to create a better future while maintaining business success in the present. They ensure that they bring people along, helping them feel confident and engaged while preparing them to adapt quickly when new challenges arise. Instead of being reactive and only focused on the present (or the past), great leaders need to maintain a longer-term vision and goals and make incremental improvements leading to a better future for the organization.

Action Steps for You

  • Get comfortable with ambiguity. The future is unpredictable and ever-changing, so you’ll need to learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty. According to McKinsey‘s report on skills that citizens need in the future of work, Coping with Uncertainty came in top in a few categories.
  • Invite new ideas and change. Innovation comes from being open to new possibilities and being willing to change your mind. Go beyond the growth mindset and embrace the agile mindset.
  • Learn from the past, but not be imprisoned by it. In order to be successful in the future, think like an Agilist. Make sure as you are failing, you are “failing forward.”
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 8. Leadership is Adaptable and Resilient

Expanding on the leadership definition above, a forward-thinking leader and mindful of current challenges would also be adaptable and resilient. Effective leaders know that to navigate complex and uncertain times, they need to roll with the punches. This means that they need to quickly adapt their plans and strategies when things don’t go as planned. They also need to bounce back stronger from failures quickly. With an agile mindset, they are always on the lookout for the next opportunity to challenge the norms, break boundaries, improve existing processes and workflows. An adaptable and resilient leader bounces back from adversity quickly and motivates others to stay the course.

A leader needs to challenge the norms more often in the uncertain business world, but doing so comes with its difficulties. There are often unforeseen consequences to actions taken by leaders which may lead an organization astray. They understand that to stay ahead of the competition, they need to constantly innovate and evolve. Whether to shape a better future workplace or simply stay ahead of the competition, a relentless focus on innovation and improvement is essential for success. Adaptability and resilience are hence, essential qualities of leaders.

Action Steps for You

  • Stay connected to the world around you. Leaders need to always elevate their mindset and learn from the best in their organization, industry, and community. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” so advance your thinking and understanding of the bigger picture in your industry constantly.
  • Be willing to experiment with new ideas. Have fun exploring new possibilities without getting too attached to any outcomes. If things don’t work out, learn from the negative example and move on.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,”

-Albert Einstein

9. Leadership is Being a Catalyst for Change

While the idea of change can be overwhelming for some, it can also create excitement and inspiration when introduced positively. Future-resilient leaders understand that change is an integral part of highly-successful organizations, and they constantly inspire people with the possibility of change. A great leader catalyzes positive change that the business needs instead of forcing it through. With a human-centered attitude, s/he uses human skills to help others in the industry navigate through complexities and friction with a sense of ease.

The result? Instead of being subjected to the changes or even victimized, every person has the power to be involved in making meaningful changes. That’s regardless of whether they play any leadership roles in the business. Instead of feeling confused and frustrated, there’s an opportunity for every member and every business leader to feel satisfied and assured.

Change, particularly in the workplace and social spheres, may be difficult. A good leader recognizes that change is stressful and does not occur overnight. S/he is both nimble and patient. S/he also understands that a well-designed strategy is meaningless unless followed through. When 70% of transformations fail, leaders need a different plan to orchestrate change.

Action Steps for You

Leaders who can orchestrate change effectively inspire other people during these challenging but rewarding times. They know that an organization achieves nothing without the commitment of its people, so they strive to design an employee experience that increases trust and buy-in. Open and transparent communication, expanding the range and modes of effective communication (hence the range of leadership styles) are just some leadership skills you can start with today. Continue your emotional intelligence journey, embrace the human side of leadership boldly, connect with your teams to build trust, and inevitably, get things done.

Some skills you can consider in your management or corporate training programs because these skills are instrumental in your endeavor to shift mindsets and increase buy-in:

  • Storytelling skills
  • Compelling writing skills
  • Impactful presentation skills

Review the effectiveness of your vision. For teams to be fully committed and successful, they need to feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves and that their work has meaning. Leaders who can create this type of environment foster a sense of purpose in their team members, which leads to increased productivity and innovation.

Here, we like to refer to Jim Collins’ flywheel concept. First, get the direction right because when you do, people can’t help themselves but be on your team to achieve significant, meaningful things together. That’s how you can enable change without chaos and fear.

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10. Leadership is Leaving the World a Better Place than the One We Were Given

The epidemic has exposed several of our systems and institutions’ flaws. It also allows leaders to build a more resilient and sustainable world. Organizations can step up and fill the void that governments have not yet filled. As reported in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, while the world appears marred by suspicion and misinformation, there is a silver lining for businesses. Here are key findings:

  • Business has become the most trusted institution with “a 61% trust level globally, and the only one seen as both ethical and competent” compared to NGOs, Governments, and Media.
  • 86% of those surveyed “expected CEOs to lead on societal issues”
  • 68% agreed that “businesses need to step in to fill the void left by the government and address these issues.”

The raised expectations of business put CEOs in a bind: they must now prioritize societal engagement with the same rigor, depth, and enthusiasm that they devote to profit.

The true recovery from COVID-19 will not be about reassembling things as they were; we must “build back better” to address the fundamental systemic vulnerabilities that the pandemic has exposed. For businesses, building back better is about much more than corporate social responsibility: it is about future-proofing organizations for the “next shock.” It’s also about delivering better jobs, more jobs, and higher equitable growth. Now would also be an excellent time to integrate climate and other sustainability goals into business strategy.

Looking beyond profit and revenue, do you have a vision that’ll leave the world a better place than the one you got?

Action Steps for You

  • Incorporate sustainability goals into your longer-term corporate vision
  • Inspire people to share their aspirations for the humankind and include these in your strategic plans
  • Lead conversations around better jobs with equitable career growth and redesign jobs in a meaningful way
  • Think about your leadership legacy – what are you really leaving behind?

Continue to Refine Your Leadership Style and Skills

The world is in a constant state of flux, and as a leader, you need to navigate these changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced leaders everywhere to rapidly adapt to new and unknown situations. As the world starts to get back on its feet, it is essential for leaders to continuously hone their skills to be ready for the future. Whether it’s having a clear vision for the future or decision-making for a fairer, more equitable workplace, leaders have an instrumental role to play.

A Last Word on What Leadership Isn’t

Given our ongoing work with leaders worldwide, we have noticed some leadership pitfalls that are worth mentioning. Therefore, we compile a list of what leadership is not in the uncertain and volatile world for your reference and consideration.

  1. Leadership is not about having all the answers, knowledge and authority to be the first to come up with new ideas, but rather constantly discovering what works best in any given situation. It’s about inviting alternative ways of thinking with a team of leaders and experts so that you can address the world’s pressing problems caused by fundamental shifts.
  2. Leadership is not being the hero but rather empowering, coaching, and developing others to become better leaders themselves. It’s about enabling others to be greater than you, not just about you achieving goals.
  3. Leadership doesn’t mean you always need to be standing in front but rather walking beside others. It’s about cocreating a rewarding collective human experience with other people.
  4. Leadership does not get to the goal at all costs. It’s about being ethical and considering the consequences of decisions not just in the short-term but also in the long-term. It’s also about respecting diversity, believing in meritocracy, and champion the right causes.
  5. Leadership doesn’t mean you always need to be right. It’s about learning from your mistakes and cocreate a fulfilling experience with a group of like-minded people.

Develop Leadership Skills with ACESENCE’s Leadership Agility Force and Be an Effective Leader in the Future of Work

The most important thing for you now is to continue to develop your leadership skills. Continuously go beyond leadership theory and put your learning into action. Build small habits. Do it bite-sized. Start with yourself, do it with a team, and embrace a whole-organization approach. Whatever works for you, take relentless action to inch forward every day.

Great leadership isn’t built in a day. Instead, it takes consistent, disciplined effort, and with time, you’ll see your effort compound and pay off.

Looking for Agile Leadership Training?

Take advantage of Chuen Chuen’s extensive experience coaching leaders worldwide and her deep expertise in designing agile leadership corporate training solutions for your teams. No matter which stage of leadership you are at, we can partner with you and meet your business needs. Explore our executive coaching programs, corporate training courses, or hire Chuen Chuen as your speaker so that your organization will become agile, adaptive, and future-resilient.

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