Article originally published: https://medium.com/rmit-forward/leaders-are-not-born-theyre-made-9abd14bf0233
Authors: Courtney Guilliatt, development partner at FORWARD — The RMIT Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation — writing with director Peter Thomas and development partners Daniel Bluzer-Fry, Pete Cohen, Inder Singh, Kate Spencer, Sally McNamara and Helen Babb Delia.
This saying has been attributed to a range of people, including business leaders, coaches, authors and academics. One person is Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State. Reflecting on his military and civilian experiences he said:
Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error, and from experience.
At RMIT FORWARD we think that leadership is not the preserve of a special group of people. It’s not an innate skill.
We believe that leadership is a craft, curated from experience, developed through intense practice and drawing on exposure to ideas and people. To grow and develop as a leader is a process. It's based on observing, understanding and connecting and founded on the transformation of experience. It’s not something you learn by studying books on leadership or strategy or even by doing an MBA.
Of course, the definition of ‘good leadership’ evolves over time and reflects the prevailing contemporary political, social and cultural norms. The qualities of celebrated leaders of the past don’t reflect the traits, skills, behaviours, or attitudes of successful leaders today. Especially in the time we are in, and the times we have recently lived through, to be an effective post-pandemic leader requires a very different understanding of work and workforces, an appreciation of new ways of working and being, and a deep appreciation of the changes wrought by globalisation, automation and digitalisation.
So what are the qualities of leaders who are likely to be successful today — and into the future?
Perhaps the place to start is to think about the workforce that leaders will be part of.
Multigenerational, diverse, and dispersed, the workforce of today looks very different from that of even 15 years ago. Hybrid work is the new normal, and more than two years into the pandemic, stress among the workforce is at an all-time high. Research by Gallup found that worry, anger, and sadness continue to be reported, year on year, at higher levels than before the pandemic. Workers feel more disconnected from their organisations than ever before and there is a stark disparity between how senior leaders and the workforce perceive organisational culture post-pandemic. The workforce is in a state of flux, with businesses facing unprecedented difficulties in attracting, engaging, and retaining their employees in a competitive job market, fuelled by the Great Resignation.
Responding to all of this requires resilience.
At FORWARD we are already focusing on change resilience — the ability to effectively self-regulate stress and anxiety to provide a point of greater stability for learning and growth — as an essential skill for navigating complexity and uncertainty in work.
In the turbulent and uncertain post-covid landscape, the ability to withstand adversity and recover quickly from setbacks is an essential leadership trait. Leaders are under increasing pressure to manage new and conflicting priorities — such as fighting to survive while innovating and seeking new growth opportunities, being attentive and communicating consistently at a time when the workforce is more remote than ever. These leadership paradoxes are the legacy of the pandemic. Leadership in this uncertain time requires resilience.
Leaders must also be empathetic.
Managing employee wellbeing is a top priority for leaders. Gartner says that workforce health is being eroded, and human-centric and empathy-based approaches and strategies will be key in the years ahead. While burnout spreads, employee stress remains at an all-time high, and global engagement low, leaders need to pay more attention to employee wellbeing, to think beyond just physical wellness and focus on the broader dimensions of wellbeing. Considered a hallmark of 21st-century leadership, and the antithesis of the command and control style of leadership, empathy helps build psychological safety in teams, drives purpose and growth, and is a crucial element of effective modern leadership.
Empathetic leaders have strong social skills. Recent research suggests this is the most highly sought-after skill set for leaders. Self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate, the ability to work with diverse people and groups and emotional awareness are now prioritised — even above the ability to manage financial and operational resources. For some leaders, this might involve embracing humility and finding the courage to be vulnerable — or simply being comfortable with not always having the answer. Authentic, self-aware leaders who recognise their strengths and weaknesses can cultivate the trust of their people and build influence, a particular challenge when some workers feel isolated or disconnected.
Effective leaders must also model and value inclusion. Inclusion has been called the key ingredient to effective and innovative modern leadership — as highlighted, for example, in CSIRO’s eight global megatrends. Previously, these skills may have been seen as optional in the leadership space. However, the workforce, workplaces and governing bodies of now and into the future are demanding these skills from leaders. Successful leaders of the future will build cultures of purpose and belonging and need to be global citizens — understanding and appreciating new cultures, actively seeking diverse teams, leading employees with different backgrounds, and succeeding in global markets.
And what else?
Post the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s, adaptive leadership experts suggested that to thrive in a new world post-crisis, leaders required new skills reshaped to an environment of volatility and uncertainty. Leaders, it was said, must foster adaptation and focus on developing “next practices” while implementing the best practices of the day to enable the organisation to not just survive, but thrive.
In the post-pandemic era, where leaders are navigating greater complexity and change, adaptive leadership is more important than ever. Leaders need to be “traditioned innovators” — those who can preserve the mission and purpose of their organisations while pursuing innovative solutions to new challenges.
A strong focus on collaboration will also be essential in the post-covid landscape, with effective leaders moving away from enforcing rules to setting examples and guidance. Greater collaboration and communication with employees will help to maintain a healthy work culture.
Research by McKinsey has found that story-telling is foundational to successful leadership. Leaders who share stories are more likely to align and motivate their teams and inspire new starters, customers, and stakeholders.
Finally, as technology advances and societal, economic and organisational conditions change, new ethical dilemmas will confront leaders. Deloitte suggests that problem-solving these scenarios will require significant creativity and innovation and for leaders to hold themselves to the highest standards of accountability and transparency. This will be crucial for leadership success moving forward.
There are many challenges and opportunities facing those who will lead their organisations, and their people, into the future. The world, and the ways that we live and work, have changed unexpectedly and unalterably. No one was born to lead in this landscape. As we enter a future that continues to be uncertain, leaders have the responsibility to make themselves face these challenges with resilience, empathy, authenticity and inclusivity.
It is a daunting task. They may not have been born to do it. But all leaders can learn to. And they do it through trial and error and by experience.
Contact the Workforce Development team to learn more about our services and partnership opportunities.
Acknowledgement of Country
RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.
Acknowledgement of Country
RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business.