There was a time when leaders were revered and respected for being sharp and competitive, even ruthless, in the pursuit of their organizational goals. As long as they delivered results, accountability was not necessary, and many a company ran into trouble because of this.
Those leaders led from the top-down with an iron fist. They commanded and controlled their workforces and treated people as a means to their end and the bottom line. They were courageous, self-reliant risk-takers who stopped at nothing to make things happen and who abhorred showing weakness or vulnerability.
From Iron First to Open Door
Today, leaders are respected for the opposite traits.
People want to follow leaders who know them and understand what they’re up against in the workplace. They want leaders who are honest, vulnerable and accountable for their actions—who admit when they make mistakes and apologize when they do. They want to know their leaders care about them as people and treat them as equals, working together toward the same goals. These kinds of leaders have a positive impact on the people who work with and for them, and inspire people to stay in the organization.
In today’s tough labour market, the traditional style leader doesn’t have a chance of retaining a highly valued, skilled and scarce workforce. In fact, the skills that make a leader successful now are the very things that used to be considered weaknesses to be avoided at all costs.
Four Essential Leadership Traits
Credibility: Today’s employees want to work for leaders who demonstrate integrity and transparency—in short, credibility. They want to know that their leaders are the same at the executive table as they are in the lunch room with the staff. They want to see real humans who have challenges and struggles just like everyone else—who make mistakes and take responsibility, rather than covering them up. A credible leader both extends trust and is trustworthy.
Inclusivity: Respected leaders bring everyone in. They don’t lead from the top, making all the decisions on their own and dictating what everyone is to do. They value everyone’s feedback and ask for it often. They “walk the floor” and are in tune with what the employees have to say about important aspects of business success. They work side-by-side with the team, rather than alone in the corner office. They are open and let employees know what’s going on in the business and how they are contributing to its success. They don’t whitewash problems, but bring them to the group to solve together.
Agility: Adaptability is key to survival in today’s business environment, so leaders need to be agile. This means not holding anything too tightly, navigating change well, and being able to turn on a dime when circumstances require it. If they are seen as credible and have been inclusive, their teams will also be able to turn on that dime, because they trust the person at the helm. Agility requires letting go of old ways of doing things and being willing to re-invent as business and customer demands are constantly changing.
Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva’s, change researcher and reinvention expert, extensive research indicates a drastic change in organizational life cycles. 100 years ago, a company’s life expectancy was 75 years. Today, globalization and the shift in power in the marketplace from buyer to seller is dramatically shortening that life expectancy. By 2001, that same life cycle was 15 years and today, it is down to seven years. Zhexembayeva says that in order to survive, companies must begin the process of reinvention at the middle of this cycle. This means current businesses must be thinking about reinvention every three and a half years.
An agile leader knows and understands this, and is willing to make those adjustments and bring his or her team along with them. An inclusive and collaborative approach means they’ve been informed throughout the process, so they’re ready to change when necessary.
Sustainability – Burnout used to be a badge of honour. It meant you were committed, hard-working, tough and able to go to the wall for your company. However, burned-out leaders don’t lead well, and those employees who watch it unfold find themselves afraid of what will happen to them if their leaders implode.
Effective leaders plan for and practice sustainable habits that keep them sane and safe from burnout. They don’t work 80 hour weeks—an old-school hallmark; instead, they prioritize family, do things they love outside of work, take care of themselves physically and emotionally, engage in healthy social activities, and often have a deep faith or spiritual connection that sustains and guides them in their actions. In a turbulent, changing, challenging, environment, only those leaders who are committed to personal sustainability will survive and thrive.
In a turbulent, changing, challenging, environment, only those leaders who are committed to personal sustainability will survive and thrive.
Unlocking Mindful Leadership Potential
The challenge with stepping into this type of leadership mindset is that it’s often easier (and faster) to just do things yourself rather than include your team. It takes less effort to simply assign tasks—even if people don’t know why they are doing them. Change is hard, and who wants to reinvent themselves every three and a half years? It’s exhausting.
But perhaps the better question is, ‘What happens if I don’t?’
Here are some questions that can lead you towards becoming more mindful, understanding the importance of and growing your leadership effectiveness.
1. How credible are you? Do you do what you say you will do? Do you regularly extend trust to your team members and behave in a way that leads others to trust you? Is your character the same in all aspects of your life (i.e. can people depend on you to be who you are in all circumstances)? Are you willing to be vulnerable with your team—let them see that you sometimes struggle and make mistakes like they do? Do you admit when you’re wrong and ask for forgiveness? Are you believable and approachable?
2. How inclusive are you? Do you routinely ask your team for their feedback on how things are going for them in their job roles? Do you keep them apprised of things that are important regarding business growth (or business challenges)? Do you take time to get to know your team members personally—do they feel you care about them? Do you spend time with your employees “on the floor”, learning where they are struggling or finding success day-to-day? Do you openly affirm and validate them for their feedback and ideas?
3. How agile are you? Are you open to change, and effectively keep your team prepared for changes that may come? Do you easily let go of old ways of doing things and welcome new ideas from your team, as well as constantly look for ways to reinvent your business? Do you hold things loosely, so that if you need to change you can do so quickly? Are you a flexible thinker? Do you help your team practice adapting to change?
4. Are you being intentional about practicing sustainable habits? Are you managing your workload so that you have an integrated life – time for work, family and yourself? Do you spend time doing things you love to do? Do you have hobbies and interests outside of work? Do you practice meditation, mindfulness, prayer, or other soul-sustaining habits? Do you make time for friends and social activities? Are you aware of what drains your energy and what gives you joy, and are you making sure there’s more energy gains than drains?
Mindful leadership doesn’t just happen, but that door is always open. It requires planning, intention, commitment and time. It also means sometimes doing things that feel counter-intuitive. The end result is not only worth it, but essential in running a successful, lasting business today.