How do we define leadership in a post-pandemic world? We know there has been a significant shift in workplace culture globally, with the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly catalysing rapid transformation in how we lead our people (and how they want to be led). The uncertainty and complexity of this transformation have taken a toll on leaders and employees collectively. 

The record number of employees voluntarily quitting and then changing their jobs or careers — aptly dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’ and the ‘Great Reshuffle’  — has left leaders in a constant cycle of recruitment and training to replace those leaving businesses.

One thing we know for sure as we push forward is change is the only constant. And leaders must be adaptive and flexible to keep up. ‘Command and control’ leadership is dead. 2022 and beyond demands a more human approach.

How has leadership changed?

Leadership is continually evolving as we eradicate the nine-to-five mindset and the hierarchical autocratic style of management from the past. Leaders of today are required to embrace a more hybrid work environment, where remote work opportunities are now the new normal. 

Traditionally, leaders had all the answers and gave their people clear direction on what to do, as well as when and how – without democratic collaboration. They were the experts in their field, often working their way up through the ranks over many years, granting them great experience, but, at times, a closed outlook for new opportunities and innovative ideas.

We know now that the ‘been there, done that’ philosophy can get in the way of good decision-making. That’s because leaders are often unaware of the biases and assumptions affecting their decisions.

Colourful image of geometric birds in flight. There is one bird leading the flock, suggesting it is the leader.

The new normal for leadership essentials

The fundamentals of leadership haven’t changed – leaders need to lead and communicate effectively and clearly in order to influence their teams to complete their deliverables to a high-standard. However, the essentials that leaders need to focus on have shifted, specifically when it comes to:

  • collaboration
  • logistics
  • employees’ needs and mental health, and 
  • agility 

Post-pandemic leadership essential #1 – Collaboration

With increased disruption and the ever-changing pace of business in the digital world, we’ve seen a shift to a more collaborative leadership approach. Silos are a problem that need to be eliminated in order to open the door to greater creativity, innovation, teamwork and productivity.

As a society, we’re moving away from being task-focused to being more people-focused. There is more cross-collaboration and leaders are working with people from other teams, functions or business areas to align workflows and ideas. Along with external collaboration with partners, customers and suppliers, this approach has also seen a change in how most organisations work and redefined the decision-making process.

Post-pandemic leadership essential #2 – Logistics

These changes haven’t come without their challenges, as even the fundamental logistics of remote work have had an enormous impact on leaders.

Kate Kesby, founder and CEO of Wyda, describes how leadership has changed and evolved in this post-pandemic landscape.

“The hybrid work movement is the biggest change to the ways of working in our generation. It’s not to be understated how big of a change it is”, she says. “It has been unsettling for many leaders because everything they learned and observed through role models has changed very quickly.”

It’s crucial for leaders to see this evolution as an opportunity to design ways of working for their team which are more effective and sustainable. The processes, mindset and logistical changes required aren’t without difficulty, but the impact to teams is worth it for leaders and businesses into the future.

Post-pandemic leadership essential #3 – Employees’ needs and mental health

As we turn the corner to a post-COVID era, employees’ needs and expectations are evolving. They now want permanent work-from-home options, more meaning and purpose to their work, a better work-life balance and mental health support. And leaders play a crucial role in meeting those needs. The rise in discussions about burnout has seen research suggest toxic workplaces as being at the root of the problem. Leaders are needing to reset their thinking around workloads, boundaries and creating psychologically safe working environments. 

Post-pandemic leadership essential #4 – Agility

Kate also identifies the struggles our leaders are having when adapting to new ways of working. “There’s a pull between old and new habits. There’s a disconnect between what they know rationally to do because their training and instincts were built on an old world that’s not there anymore. So it’s an uncertain space they’re in right now.” She goes on to say, “I’ve got a lot of compassion for leaders trying to navigate this current environment. They need to be more collaborative, but, at the same time, they need to be able to move fast and be agile.”

We saw many companies race to adopt the Agile operating model during the pandemic, enabling their organisations to be more resilient and efficient by working quickly and flexibly. The leadership model centres around cross-functional, diverse and empowered teams working closely together to build, experiment, deliver and adapt.

According to McKinsey & Company, leading firms are gaining significant benefits by implementing agility at scale, in order to survive and prosper in this more turbulent, uncertain and ambiguous world. 

Agile methodologies are effective and enable higher team productivity and engagement in a much shorter time frame. However, those benefits only apply when agile working methods are implemented well and with a focus on delivering customer value.

What is an ‘effective’ leader in today’s working world?

There have been some critical lessons learned over the past two years. The ‘ Great Resignation and Reshuffle’ has been a huge wake-up call to organisations worldwide. A recent survey of over 30,000 workers conducted by Microsoft found that 41 per cent were considering quitting, the number rising to 54 per cent among younger workers. Organisations and leaders need to adapt quickly to meet the changing needs of their people.

Kate says, “Leaders have to reassess the value they add. In the old world, leaders felt that the value they added was to have all the answers and to instruct, guide and mentor, as in, ‘Let me tell you how we solved that problem before.’ But if there’s been so much change in the world, then that very quickly isn’t the right way forward. You must redefine the value you add as a leader to help build capability, hold a space for people and help them understand their priorities.”

In March 2022, Gartner conducted a survey of more than 230 HR leaders. The results concluded that of the leaders surveyed, 90 per cent believed that leaders had to focus on the human aspects of leadership in order to succeed. 

Another Gartner survey of nearly 3,400 employees, also conducted in March 2022, found that just 29 per cent of participants reported that their leader was a human leader. This staggering research clearly shows a disconnect between what’s needed and what’s actually happening.

How to bridge the leadership gap

Gartner research identifies the three main components that make up human leadership:

  • Authenticity
  • Empathy
  • Adaptability. 

Focusing on these qualities will help leaders have less turnover, more productivity and better employee engagement. 

This is a considerable shift for leaders and managers who haven’t been adequately trained to manage a hybrid workplace or coach their people remotely. Soft skills coaching, also known as human skills coaching, has become a prominent skill set to have. And, as such, organisations are investing vast amounts in leadership training and coaching platforms to build new capabilities, strengthen their company culture and position themselves as leaders in their field.

Stock photo of woman working in a cafe on a video conference.

What is the future leadership?

As we’ve come to see, empathy and authenticity are critical qualities of a human approach to leadership, to build trust and foster creative thinking within teams.

And Kate agrees. “That’s much more a part of what leadership is now — showing that vulnerability, being willing to say what you don’t know and building trust with others within your team. That’s been a new skill for leaders, to embrace that vulnerability as a way to show strength. So when you are confident as a leader, you are willing to do that.”

Self-awareness and self-management become essential for leaders to develop as we define what leadership is and how to navigate the new normal. By building self-awareness, leaders can self-reflect, be more aware of their impact on others and change behaviours to suit the individual.

In a previous article, we discussed situational leadership theory, which further describes this flexible, individual approach. It encourages leaders to consider the uniqueness of their team members when choosing their leadership style. According to the situational leadership theory, the most influential leaders are those who tailor their approach to each situation and meet their people where they are at.

How do I become a better leader?

According to Gartner’s research, human leadership is complex, and many leaders find it difficult to navigate the situations that they are bound to face. HR leaders were surveyed, and 68 per cent of the participants reported that to become better leaders, their organisations would need to provide “scenario-based guides and training”. 

Scenario-based immersive learning experiences, such as our virtual game-based platform, provide leaders with different insights into how their counterparts operate, leading to empathy and understanding. It’s a powerful tool because it allows you to experience how you feel under pressure and experiment with different leadership approaches.  

Watch our demo and see how Wyda can help you become a better leader today.