Why 'Messy' Leaders are the Future
Research suggests that "messy" leaders will best navigate the new normal.
For leaders, 2020 was a troublesome year. The global health crisis brought swift (and sometimes painful) changes to the way we work and live. This meant leaders had to help employees manage historically high levels of stress and respond to challenges more quickly than they ever thought possible.
To better understand what organizations needed from their leaders, my company interviewed dozens of top decision makers about how they responded to the economic crisis and determined their organization's future approach. Interestingly, that research demonstrated that many previously successful leaders were struggling. In fact, 2020 acted seemingly like an accelerator; traits that were found only in the minority of leaders were seen more broadly — and arguably became essential to thriving in our new normal.
But why? The answer is simple: 2020 demanded that leaders be empathetic, engage in hot-button issues, look outside their company to society at large, relinquish processes, trust their employees and respond to changes in a moment's notice. Before March 2020, leaders with these traits made up a minority of leaders. And though more traditionally-minded leaders often struggle to embody these qualities, they're now a requirement for future success.
Last year brought an entire host of issues to their boiling points, with racial injustice, economic inequality and the mental health crisis among them. This has created a demand for more inclusive cultures, greater diversity in buying choices and a shift toward a workforce that's increasingly global and virtual-first.
The future will bring even more unpredictable change at a breakneck pace, so leaders must prepare to face vexing challenges in the coming years. Here's why the following traits — which can be seen as endemic in "messy" leaders — could also bring success.
1. They prioritize compassion over old-school professionalism
According to a Gallup poll, reports of daily worry among full-time workers increased from 37 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2020.
The old "we only talk business here" leadership approach might work during stable times. But when employees are struggling emotionally and perhaps financially, it comes across as out of touch and cold. Our team of researchers found that leaders who struggled to cope during the lockdown and 2020's racial-justice reckoning were those with a tendency to use professionalism as a shield to avoid difficult but necessary conversations. Regardless, we've reached a point where organizations can no longer sidestep sensitive topics such as race and mental health. Employees are demanding to have these conversations, and many leaders feel exposed.
By contrast, the leaders who fared well were those with the courage to talk about emotional (and even controversial) topics, thereby engaging their employees on a decidedly personal level. They reached into the void because it was important to their people. They understood that change starts with broaching tough subjects.
To mirror these messy leaders' traits, key players should consider how to reach out to support their employees and their communities. They should prioritize compassion over professionalism and get comfortable engaging in personal conversations without any agenda other than deepening their own understanding. They might find it difficult to initiate these talks with many employees still working from home. Instead of waiting for chance interactions, however, they might find that these conversations need to happen during specific meetings rather than between them.
2020 was also the year in which leaders felt accountable for societal impact in a way they'd never felt before. Before 2020, it was possible to work within a relatively loose set of ethical aspirations, but leaders generally worked off the assumption that decisions should be made primarily through a commercial lens. Last year demanded that leaders deeply understand how their business decisions impact the world at large.
We saw this in action in the varying ways businesses responded to the pandemic: For instance, Wisconsin craft distilleries made news when they converted part of their production lines toward making hand sanitizer. Many of these companies offered hand sanitizer for free at a time when their businesses were struggling, but they already had such strong ties to their local communities that they understood the importance of taking positive action anyway.
2. They focus less on processes and more on outcomes
One of the common characteristics of leaders who struggled to find their footing in 2020 was an overreliance on processes that slow down change. When the crisis hit, these leaders looked to the past for cues about the future, and they attempted to "manage" the change the way they always had.
This approach was problematic for two reasons: First, most of us had never seen widespread lockdowns triggered by a pandemic, so the past didn't offer any helpful models for predicting the future. Second, traditional change management assumes that change is a linear process with a clear beginning, middle and end, but CEOs are increasingly being forced to lead in an environment where change is constant.
The leaders who have thrived in the unpredictable environment created by this global health crisis are those who were already change-ready. These are the "messy" leaders who care more about outcomes than processes, allowing them to respond rapidly to changing conditions.
Case in point: The Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center was able to drastically ramp up its telehealth capabilities in a matter of weeks, even though its data models suggested it would take several years. In our own study, another leader told the story of moving 14,000 staff members out of a head office to work remotely. If the company had even contemplated such a change under normal conditions, it would've spent months in the assessment and implementation phases. Without time to spare, however, leaders set goals, trusted their staff and made the switch in just five days.
Now, CEOs are recognizing that the biggest barriers to boldness and speed aren't technical limitations. Rather, preconceived mindsets about what's possible, processes that slow things down and bottlenecks created by chains of command are the true limiting factors. To succeed in a future where the next crisis is always looming, leaders must accept change as a constant.
When they always expect that conditions could change, leaders can replace traditional forecasting processes with fast-cycle experimentation. Leaders should stop trying to plan and predict future scenarios. Instead, they should take the actions that are most appropriate in the moment and adjust their approach as data emerges.
3. They embrace the power of not knowing
We found that leaders who struggled the most during the crisis were those who fell victim to "superhero syndrome," or wanting to put on a brave face for their employees to project strength and expertise. Leaders who were well-respected in normal times found their people looking to them for guidance, but this only created bottlenecks and inhibited creativity. When the pace of change became too fast for them to lead from the front as they always had, many tried to compensate by working longer, unsustainable hours.
In contrast, the leaders who were able to weather the crisis best were those with the confidence to take themselves out of the driver's seat and admit that they didn't have all the answers. They were willing to let go of their attachment to driving outcomes — choosing, instead, to embody vulnerability, humility and trust.
Letting go of the need to project strength and be all-knowing creates acceptance to working differently. It allows teams to take ownership of change and respond with greater speed. This doesn't mean leaders should succumb to the impulse to fall apart. Rather, it means gathering all the smartest people in the room and asking, "How do you think we should handle this?" When leaders aren't busy trying to hold the world on their shoulders, it frees them up to focus on the things that matter.
2020 permanently changed the business landscape, and consequent responses will likely impact how organizations deal with every pitfall in 2021 and onward. The world will stay messy, meaning leaders must learn to lead in a messy way. They must shift from a wait-and-see mindset to a test-and-learn approach to business. Those who always expect change, lean into the unknown and take a distinctly human approach will be perfectly positioned for whatever the future might bring.
Related: What If the New Normal Is Better?
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