4 Ways to Close the Leadership Vacuum

Leaders must become more transparent, purposeful and future-ready if organisations are to improve workforce engagement and bottom-line results, suggests HotTopics contributing editor Sarah Needham.


Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels like this is the first year where no-one is predicting a recovery. The current level of economic and political disruption is not expected to change significantly this year, and organisations are subsequently making cutbacks or pulling back on the next wave of business “transformation”.


Despite this, as McKinsey states in their CEO priorities for 2024, while some CEOs are waiting for macroeconomic certainty, others are actively looking to capitalise on the uncertainty.


This represents a critical time for leadership. People are craving good leadership, yet see few visible examples. In short, there is a leadership vacuum that must be addressed if organisations are to improve workforce engagement and business performance.


Explaining the leadership gap

Covid-19 played a big part in raising the global consciousness level. Many people, of all ages, became clearer on what they wanted from work and life, and are as such now far less likely to accept anything that falls short of their expectations.


This has created a leadership gap. Staff recognise the lack of good leadership role models and yet are unwilling to step-up to take on the seemingly endless burden which the majority of leaders have accepted. 


Employees are seeing and feeling it. This is discussed in the findings of the big workplace research studies, and it’s one of the key reasons that global engagement is so low. 


Gallup, the US-based analytics and advisory company, continues to stress that leaders need to focus on their people if they want to turn this around, not least with the cost of the lack of engagement equating to roughly 9% of global GDP.


As the consciousness level of humanity increases, we need leaders who are ahead of this shift  – since we know that organisational consciousness closely aligns with the consciousness of its most senior leaders.


“By becoming conscious it (the organisation) can do what it does even better. It can create more community, more mutuality and paradoxically, more profit by engaging everyone in the system.” - Conscious Capitalism – Mackey & Sisodia.


In a disrupted world, there is even more risk. This means more losses, but also bigger wins for those who take courageous action to step up and fill this leadership vacuum. 


Let’s have a look at the leadership trends for those who want to drive their business to success in 2024 and beyond:


1-Reflect and Act

Leaders are being called to work on themselves to increase their level of consciousness; provide increased transparency, focus on the value they contribute and be comfortable in not knowing every answer – to name just a few.


People have had enough of ‘command and control’ leadership; we now need leaders who are more in-tune with the needs of humanity, starting with what they, their teams and their organisations require. We cannot simply keep asking people to do more with less – instead, we must start being leaders who show up, are aligned to the business values and work in the currency of trust.


In addition, we need to cut out corporate speak and realign what we say with what we do.


Today, there is often a huge gap between what is being said and the action taken in businesses. The business values are not being honoured in business decisions. Many leaders believe that this is justifiable based on the level of uncertainty and also, often mistakenly, that this gap is not visible to the employees. In reality, this gap in transparency is not only visible to them, but also frequently undermines trust.


If you are not living your business values, at least stand up honestly and explain why. If necessary, change your business values, but don’t try to cover it up.


We need leaders who are willing to break the system which promoted them into leadership in the first place and courageously re-design a system to nurture diverse leaders for a very different, more equitable future.


I believe that what’s going to take your business to success tomorrow is not visible to most leaders today and there is often “fear of those in control of letting go of what has helped them get their businesses where they are today.” 


Only those leaders willing to search a little deeper will discover the opportunities just hidden out of reach.


2-Future focus

I believe we will see a shift away from short-termism in the most successful businesses. A short-term focus doesn’t pay off in a disrupted world, because you end up changing tack too often, losing valuable efficiencies in the process.


This is a renegotiation with your business shareholders to trust that not fudging the numbers to meet short-term targets, but instead aiming longer-term provides more consistency and sustainability. It also makes the business case for doing the “right thing” by your employees, shareholders and broader society – including activities such as DEI and sustainability, which are less reactive to the latest world crisis.


The effects of the short-term behaviours of many businesses drive their leaders to make decisions that are “harmful to stakeholders, including ultimately shareholders” – Conscious Capitalism,  Mackey & Sisodia.


3-Tech becomes an enabler 

We need to leverage the potential of technology to reduce overload and enable our teams to work better together. It has the potential to create “space” for the real knowledge work and innovation to unfold.


However, despite the hype, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not the answer to anything unless you know the right question or “prompt”. “New workplace technologies are emerging that …help humans become better humans and teams become better teams,’ says Deloitte.


Those who try to substitute technology for good leadership will fail. If anything, the advent of these technologies is calling us to go back to the heart of how to motivate people – a more human-centric approach to leadership…all of which leads us to the final trend.


4-Contribution to the greater good

I define Generative leadership as “leaders who seek to inspire and enrich the human experience by building great cultures and workplaces where people can unlock their limitless potential.”


BCG defines it more holistically: ‘Generative leaders leave the world a better place than they found it.”


It sounds like a big task but it’s quite simple; the leaders who will succeed will be those who can harness the power of their people (engagement) through yet another year of uncertainty and disruption, and help them contribute to a bigger purpose.


Imagine what your organisation can achieve with an additional 49% of your employees actively engaged – this is the gap today between global engagement (23%) and the best organisation engagement scores of (72%).


This highlights that the action many organisations are taking to cut costs will likely have the opposite effect and reduce engagement, leading to decreasing efficiencies. This is not the time to cut costs on engagement or DEI, but rather to integrate these behaviours that are aligned with your values into the core culture of the business. As Gartner states in its Future of Work trends for 2024, DEI doesn’t disappear; it becomes the way we work.”


Cost-cutting on leadership development is another area to impact engagement. Leaders who have been promoted in the current system, for high individual achievement, need help to pivot towards generative leadership. We also need to be open to removing “leaders” who are unwilling or unable to unlock the potential of their employees.


Like it or not, the trend towards more human-centered leaders is underway. In the last 18 months, we've even seen C-level recruiters focusing more than ever on social skills, as executive recruiter Russell Reynolds calls them: In a technology-driven world with more engaged and empowered stakeholders, the need for leaders to have outstanding social skills is clear. 


In summary

The true extent of the leadership gap we can see emerging today will only be fully visible in a few years because currently, many people are not voting with their feet, instead, they are choosing to switch off and endure.


This is because security is their primary need, they are scared they can’t find a new job so although you might see your retention improving, even if your leaders aren't. Don’t be fooled that everything is OK. 


With so few great examples of leadership in the world, people are craving better leadership to navigate the uncertainty. Leaders who can drive results today by focusing on the future and creating new systems to enable their employees to contribute their best.


I dare you to look inside your organisation, explore how you and your leadership team can move towards generative leadership and take bold, courageous actions to move into the future. Are you ready?


HotTopics contributing editor Sarah Needham is an executive leadership coach to CEOs and C-level leadership teams at Unique-U Coaching, helping clients leverage their strengths to optimise business goals, realise their ambitions and take control of their future. Needham is a Professional Certified Coach with ICF and BCorp leader.

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