In late November 2021, Storm Arwen ravaged the UK. It closed railway lines, took down or damaged millions of trees, and left thousands of homes without power, some for several weeks.
So, what’s that got to do with leadership? Well, as one senior HR leader we spoke to during our original responsible business and leadership research put it, leading through the COVID-19 pandemic was “Storm Arwen for the mind”. It disrupted leaders on every level, forcing them out of old ways of working and — much like those uprooted trees — unfreezing deep-seated assumptions.
Many leaders adapted well to the initial shockwaves of the pandemic, showing themselves to be more capable, caring and committed to people and wider society than most might have thought possible. While some had always been purpose-driven, being champions of social justice and deeply human in their leadership, others had something of an awakening. The experience of leading through a crisis uncovered injustices that they may have been blind to, and forced a more open, authentic communication style. It became painfully clear how impossible it is for one person, or one organisation, to do it all. Today, collaboration, both internally and outside the organisation, is the aim of the game.
“Hero leadership is over”
In our latest podcast episode, Nick Hampton, CEO of Tate & Lyle, reflects on this need for leaders to reach outwards, admitting vulnerability and the fact that they don’t always have all the answers. “The age of hero leadership is over,” he says. “Authentic leadership is about building a team of leaders. I think of my job as CEO as being the chief architect and the chief cheerleader. You provide clarity, direction and a clear purpose, build a world-class team and inspire them to be the best leaders.”
Indeed, as Hampton goes on to point out in the podcast, the pandemic, while extreme, highlighted the challenges of a world that is in constant change and crisis. Such disruption might have been described as unprecedented, but the fact is that leaders should get used to leading through turmoil. From the Ukraine war to climate change, from economic insecurity to artificial intelligence, the challenges we face today are so big, so complex, so potentially existential in nature, that we need more of the resilient and empathetic leadership that emerged during the pandemic, not less.
Considering responsible leadership also requires us to ponder the nature of responsible followership. If we accept that we live in an increasingly interconnected system, then all of us within the system have some responsibilities. While compassionate leadership is necessary — non-negotiable even — some expectations of leaders may need to be recalibrated. For instance, the accessibility of some leaders during the pandemic meant that employees may now expect an open hotline to the CEO, something that is simply not practical nor sustainable. And with the age of hero leadership over, there’s a need to recognise that even the best leaders will make mistakes, as they try to innovate at pace and respond to global, societal and macroeconomic challenges.
Rethinking leadership development
While no one would wish for another pandemic, there’s no denying it was something of a leadership development professional’s dream. It can take enormous amounts of energy to shift ways of thinking and working, but COVID-19 forced it more or less overnight.
According to Hampton, when facing complex, volatile and fast-moving environments, leaders and organisations need more agility, more bravery and the ability to experiment. Traditionally, many leaders follow a career ladder where they are recognised and rewarded for individual contribution, and then move seamlessly from management to leadership, supported by classroom learning. Instead, people need to be given the opportunity to lead earlier in their careers, to be empowered to learn, experiment and fail, in collaboration with others from inside and outside the business.
At Tate & Lyle, in practice, that has meant moving away from more traditional classroom or even residential learning for up-and-coming leaders, and instead focusing far more on on-the-job learning, with opportunities for collaboration across the global business on live strategic issues. As Hampton reflects: “We did something different and got a different outcome, versus, ‘I’m going to put you in a classroom for a week and expect you to walk back out into the business as a fundamentally different person.’”
Exposing leaders (and future leaders) to broader societal issues is also core to building the responsible leadership capability required for a more sustainable and inclusive world. This could be via reverse mentoring — also serving to flatten hierarchies — or through opportunities to work with charities and community partners. As we explored in our last thought leadership article, the public now expects business leaders to engage more actively and openly with social issues. It is no longer acceptable for leaders to live in a bubble and, in such an unpredictable yet connected world, doing so is bad for business anyway.
At the heart of responsible leadership is the need to remain purpose- and principles-led, using these as a north star for making tough decisions and guiding organisations through uncertainty. Take those leaders making decisions around the application of AI, for instance. As Professor Hope Hailey points out in the latest podcast: “They may well have technical expertise, but if they cannot understand how to wield that power in a way that’s mindful of societal impact, ethics and integrity, then we are not advancing society in terms of the next generation of leaders.”
The height of the pandemic might be over, but the need for resilient, collaborative and humane leadership has really only just begun.
Workplace support for survivors of domestic abuse is more likely to be in place where female leaders are in decision-making positions
CIPD research shows varied responses to generative AI use from organisations, as some explore opportunities to improve productivity