What does leadership look like after COVID-19?By Darren Murch OAM August 20, 2020
Two recent events have had undeniable impacts on human behaviour and expectations. Notably, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the COVID-19 pandemic have instilled an insatiable need for security, safety, information and persistent communications. Governments have normalised their delivery of these to achieve a national outcome through centralised control. Likewise, the scale of the 2019/20 Bushfires and pandemic in Australia has warranted interventions that federate agencies and resources. This has gone a long way to support society, but the scarring of human memories will have a bearing on human behaviour and inter-personal engagement. This thematic relationship acts as a leverage point to contemplate what leadership may look like after COVID-19.
Leadership is an expected and required necessity that influences people to move towards a common purpose. This can be in a deliberate or emergent manner but as contemporary leadership theory suggests, leaders should do this with a contingency-based (situation-based) approach (Fiedler, 2015). Nevertheless, leadership is underpinned by knowledge, experience and judgement, which develops through personal interaction with the environment. This article will propose five trends, exacerbated by national and global events, that contribute to changing human behaviour.
The five trends
Key periods in evolution have notably been influenced by and impacted on the needs and wants of people. During our modern history, the Information Age is recognised to have created a shift that is arguably more significant than the Industrial Revolution. This gives rise to Stephen Hawking’s (1996) worldview of human evolution occurring at a rate that surpasses Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Hawking proposes humans are controlling natural selection and creating a self-designed evolutionary environment. He sees this has been exponentially accelerated owing to enormous amounts of information transmitted and the access to mediums to do that. Narrowing this worldview to identify these influences on leadership is useful to personalise what this means to a leader. Based on the article’s premise of the impact of recent memory-scarring events, five trends standout that will increasingly influence the application of leadership:
- Increase in diversity
- The necessity for collaboration
- Information availability
- Autonomous learning
- Flexible working arrangements (FWA)
The relationship of these five trends provides a paradox to achieving a team result through individual endeavours. In contrast, building effective teams is an expected leadership outcome that typically requires people coming together and developing relationships that follow Tuckman’s Group Development Model (1965) of forming, storming, norming and performing. How is this achieved when isolation, either imposed or voluntary, means teams infrequently come together? In recent years, this question has become more evident due to a range of circumstances that include: unprecedented crises, population growth, urbanisation, rapid technology development, climate change, political shifts and generational tendencies; all of which change personal desires. At this point, readers should free their minds of their leadership preferences and consider how the application of leadership is dependent on the ever-changing situation.
Trend 1 - Increase in diversity
There would not be a leadership training session or theory that would deny diversity is a valuable multiplier for a team. Therefore, this paradigm suggests leaders should seek diversity within their teams. However, seeking this on face value alone will not achieve a leader’s diversity aspirations. Rather, understanding the benefits of diversity will allow leaders to personalise their approach to capitalise on each person’s skills, knowledge and attitude. In keeping with a military theme, Kilcullen (2012) identifies the accelerating pace of three mega-trends that he says will shape the conflict environment:
- The tendency for humans to live in cities (Urbanisation)
- The likelihood for these cities to be on coastlines (Littoralisation)
- Connectivity of people, populations and networks (Connectedness)
These elements will gather pace and require leaders to prioritise diversity more than ever. Arnett (2002) understands these patterns and relates them to the accelerated nature of globalisation, which has intensified human connections. He explains this has psychological consequences and transforms how people think about themselves in relation to their social environment. This has positive and negative implications that leaders must recognise to develop teams that have clarity of their group identity and strengths. Kilcullen’s (2007) suggestion of a long and broad view of an interwoven grand strategy is a transferable notion to a leadership philosophy that values and inculcates diversity.
Leadership is people-centric, so leaders must understand demographic peculiarities to determine how best they can incorporate or mitigate them. Examples of these are:
- Australia’s increasing migrant population highlights cultural differences are certain and pervasive:
- Pro – Many cultures coming together bring wide networks
- Pro – Opens a creative lens to solutions
- Pro – Pushes leadership agility
- Worldwide aging trends show people work for longer:
- Pro – Greater experience within teams will already exist
- Pro – Workers will bring greater insights from wider life experiences
- The older portion of the workforce does not necessarily form the leadership base:
- Pro – Leadership comes from all ages of the workforce
- Pro – People have numerous careers in a lifetime
- Leaders must be able to communicate across the generations. Diversity is not just about talking to the youth or amongst the sexes:
- Pro – Numerous communication methods and mediums enable access to wider audiences (verbal, written, digital, visual, automated)
Trend 2 - Necessity for collaboration
This trend should not be confused with consultation, but together are part of the communication process. Collaboration allows leaders to collect input from others and share their own ideas to explore optimal outcomes. Thinking, deciding and acting with an “across and through” the organisation mindset allows leaders to understand the organisation as a whole and not be channelled by silo-thinking. Drawing out the best in people is the necessary skill to enable diversity instead of simply achieving diversity quotas. However, being an effective collaborator is a skill and requires attention, practise and knowledge of people.
Leaders must engage widely, often to scope feasibility and with a mind to adjust if the conditions are not right or how they were initially perceived. Conversely, collaboration may impress upon the leader the validation to surge on. Although a military is structured as a hierarchy, which is important during conflict and high levels of confusion, leaders should acknowledge the chain of command is slow (some would say deliberately so). Understanding this is important for leaders, if they are to grasp Hawking’s notion of self-designed change (evolution). In turn, this will help them consider the impact of slow response on generations that expect immediate, accurate communications. Using a different perspective, Arthur, Khapova and Wilderom (2005) introduce the emergence of a boundaryless career, which is an indicator the contemporary workforce is not wedded to an objectives-based, traditional career and expect to negotiate for greater motivations or they will move on. This is a form of bottom-up collaboration, which if considered, will demonstrate the leadership’s commitment to diversity, autonomous thought and flexibility.
Trend 3 - Information availability
As always, the importance of leader engagement with people is vital, which this third trend reinforces. Information comes from either a primary source or from second or subsequent parties. According to Sessa et al. (2007), an expectation of a multi-generational workforce is for leaders to build empathetic relationships and be accessible to their employees. Senior leadership of the Australian Army have made conscious efforts to do this through cultural reform, frequent workplace circulation and junior leadership forums. These are either face to face or virtual and have become opportunities to inform the next cohort of change agents. These interactions draw the workforce together and build confidence through involvement and feeling valued.
Seeking information perpetuates itself, especially with the immediacy of material accessible at the fingertips. Leaders should understand this and focus their engagements to be:
- Personalised (to the individual or the team)
- Cater to the inquisitive
However, leaders should be conscious to not create a dependency and responsibly create collaborative relationships instead of directive ones.
On the other hand, information will come from other avenues and, due to technology, can be quicker than the leader can deliver. The needs of people are different, so leaders should have a routine that provides suitable communications and not feel confronted knowing individuals will seek their own edification of that information. Consequently, leaders should expect nuanced views, misinformation, rumours and spillage. These should not be frustrations but opportunities to learn about the team’s thoughts and moments that nudge the leader to encourage information coherence. People will come to the team with knowledge that may or may not be correct but it is their knowledge. This should shift a leader’s attention to teach people how to think. There is more than enough information available; rather, knowing how to prioritise and relate that knowledge is more important than adding more data.
Trend 4 - Autonomous learning
Closely associated with information availability and reinforced by COVID-19 adjustments to working from home, Trend 4 has become a realised possibility for all individuals and organisations. Additionally, leaders have had to rely on their people to undertake unsupervised activities to progress their knowledge. Limitless lists of podcasts, self-paced vocational training and leadership forums, not to mention increasingly more soldiers seeking tertiary education are encouraging signs that people are proactively exploring their thoughts and professional environments. Organisational initiatives such as The Cove have become forums for many to learn through reflection and active participation. This has expanded the numbers of self-developers (far more than the first 30 years of my career).
Recently, Hase and Kenyon (2007) uncovered the deeper side of adult learning (Andragogy) to discover adults are trending to educate themselves as self-directed learners, categorised as Heutagogy. Both forms of adult learning are based on experience exchange but the strength of Heutagogy rests in an environment not rigidly constrained by curriculum and set learning activities. Rather, it seeks learning and solutions that achieve capability outcomes and not simply individual betterment. This has emerged owing to the infinite access to information and the ability to communicate it globally and instantaneously, allowing people to learn what is of interest to them and relate it to their needs and work. This approach encourages curious soldiers who seek to examine how to be professional within their roles. Be aware though, leaders will be caught off-guard if they are not attentive to this or practitioners of Heutagogy themselves.
Trend 5 - Flexible working arrangements
The prelude to FWA was work/life balance but did not go far enough to meet the desires of a workforce that claimed mounting work pressures affected livelihoods. FWA are commonly written into organisational work-conditions manuals that may include measures of success, such as the Queensland Correction Services formalising FWA quotas. The rapid development of technology now allows dispersed communications to facilitate flexible work, study and socialising. COVID-19 has forced the development of policies, course design and structures to accelerate this approach that allows people and teams to work from anywhere (not just from home). This realisation supports Hawking’s self-directed change (evolution) theory, which in the COVID-19 environment, has occurred in a few months to materialise. Many professional and social conversations now ask of our training and work system “why go back to traditional learning formats?”
As a way for leaders to view this, it should be seen as the future being pulled to the present. Under “normal” circumstances, leaders would have created a vision of what is to be, experimented, created a change management strategy and developed systems to implement change over time. Memory-scarring events are pushing and pulling change upon organisations, such as acceptance of FWA and convincing people that working differently is necessary. Perhaps working in any form of status quo should be considered abnormal.
These five trends suggest leaders need to be comfortable with non-face to face training and deployments executed from a baseline of simulation, dispersed collaboration and competence gained through self-directed exploration. Individuals and teams should feel empowered and be accountable for the own preparedness and readiness that is encouraged with a leadership mindset that fosters irregularity. Certainly, coming together is indispensable for military operations but this may only be for the essential team synchronising activities. This supports the idea of being connected by ideas and not through physical control. Leaders will need to change their perspective of categorising work attendance through a FWA lens and lead with an outlook of training and operating across numerous domains, needs and wishes.
Conclusion - Leadership and the five trends
These five trends are consistent with the people-centric nature of leadership and are part of the mission and operating environment. Either through conversation or deep analysis, identifying the changing expectations of the workforce is essential to visualising the future and drawing it near. Categorising people as Baby Boomers through to Generation Alpha using a timeline assessment is limiting and does not value diversity. Instead, assessing the tendencies and abilities of individuals and the nature of the team’s identity provides the human resource that leaders influence.
Commonly, traditional leadership traits linked to human behavioural propensities form the basis of leading. However, behaviour will evolve as humanity continually experiences events that are felt globally. Building effective teams made up of individuals brought together has always been the mark of a good leader but this model has been based on individuals coming together. Recent circumstances have pushed teams apart and individuals have come to expect individualistic life and work opportunities. As these people become the leaders of the future, they will structure their approach to reflect this more. Therefore, should this notion be pulled forward to influence teaming behaviours (Australian Army, 2020) that anticipate individuals will be grouped and dismantled frequently to meet contingency needs? Accepting this will drive leaders to expect individuals to arrive personally prepared and skilled to crash through short-notice mission-specific direction to execute missions. This will require leaders to:
- Captitalise on diversity
- Consult and collaborate widely
- Take advantage of information sources and platforms
- Expect people to learn autonomously and reinforce it as part of the learning system
- Accept that teams will be formed at the time of need
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