A Human Approach to Leadership

2020 has been a turning point in history. The pandemic has disrupted life across the globe, leading to millions of deaths and crippling large parts of the world’s economies. It has made leaders stop and think about their priorities more powerfully than any other recent event.

Just one year ago, in the introduction to a previous special edition of Global Focus, we referred to the changing world, reflecting that “parts of the corporate world have continued along the existing path ignoring many of the changes happening around it. It is as if many organisations believe they are immune from societal, economic and technological change, continuing on their course in the assumption that many of the disruptive factors are just short term and if ignored for long enough will disappear.”

How things have changed since then! COVID-19 has proved to be a powerful catalyst for change. Amongst all the tragedy there is a hope that the corporate world will emerge out of the dark days of 2020 having learned some fundamental lessons about the human race. Faced with our vulnerability to a silent killer we have had to think about what is important in life. The pursuit of wealth and power is pointless if you are faced with threats to the survival of your business or even your own life. How employers treat their people during the crisis is a measure of their social conscience and the responsibility they take for the welfare of their community.

COVID-19 has proved to be a powerful catalyst for change. Amongst all the tragedy there is a hope that the corporate world will emerge out of the dark days of 2020 having learned some fundamental lessons about the human race. Faced with our vulnerability to a silent killer we have had to think about what is important in life.

In many western economies, almost half the working population have been working from home during this, the biggest peacetime disruption to daily life. Managers who themselves are working from home have had to adjust to remote relationships with their people. They have been forced to let go of daily supervision and manage by outcome. They have discussed purpose and goals with their teams and then left them to achieve results, trusting that the freedom will not be abused. And, much to the surprise of many managers, productivity has been maintained and teamwork has not suffered badly.

Now employees have experienced a new way of working, the vast majority do not want to return to their old workplace full time when the crisis is over. There will be times when it is appropriate to get together but they don’t see the need to return to daily commuting. We will be entering an era of hybrid working where employees have much more control over when and where they work.

This has profound implications for leadership, as things shift from command and control to guiding and empowering. Attracting the best talent from Gen Z will require managers to keep up with their expectations of freedom, flexibility and trust.

Somehow, when we think of the best leaders or even the best organisations, we project human traits onto them. Traits like resilience, agility, humility, authenticity, trust, empathy or even kindness. In the last year, these qualities have risen to the top of the pile. Indeed, even before the pandemic, there was growing evidence that these human factors were increasingly important to business success.

Yet, when we look at the routines and processes that exist in organisations around the world, by far the vast majority of them focus solely on improving operational efficiency and effectiveness. Yes, it is key that revenue, profit, market share and financial returns measure up to what we promise our shareholders. But if the human factor is so key in the transition to the new digital and agile future everyone is striving for, then where are the architectures and blueprints that ensure enough time, resources, and attention are paid to that one crucial factor of our success? Leaders have been talking about purposeful organisations that focus on a wide set of stakeholder needs rather than narrow financial targets.

If the human factor is so key in the transition to the new digital and agile future everyone is striving for, then where are the architectures and blueprints that ensure enough time, resources, and attention are paid to that one crucial factor of our success?

They have realised that sustainability is as important as profit and the values behind an organisation’s culture are as important as shareholder value. But turning this good intent into practical action is a struggle.

Where can leaders find guidance on how to weave the goodness of humanity into the DNA of organisational design and operational excellence? Where are the companies that have discovered that missing (yet so crucial) link which brings these wonderful human virtues into our daily business routines? Where trust is ever-present, where kindness is the norm, where empathy and appreciation define every interaction we have.

This series of articles from the Future Work Forum and EFMD provide some useful guidance for leaders who are facing this challenge. They point out practical ways to increase sustainability and run organisations with a sense of purpose.

They show how trust, kindness and empathy are not just hollow words of intent but are built into everyday leadership actions. They paint an optimistic view of the world of work in 2030 and challenge HR to adopt a new role in this new world. And they show how traditional leadership is being challenged by technology.

We are living through an exciting and challenging time in the development of leadership. It’s taken a virus to knock us out of our complacency and force us to rethink many assumptions that govern the world of work. COVID-19 has accelerated the rate of social and economic change and leaders cannot afford to be left behind.

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