For years, senior business leaders have been used to being looked up to and respected for the positions they occupy in the corporate or political world and for the technical expertise they possess. Things were good for them. When they called the shots, their employees were expected to jump into action. Then along came the pandemic and everything changed, turning everyone into novices, from the bottom to the top of every leadership tree of every company and country. When the pandemic struck, there was nobody on the planet who could say, “Don’t worry, I’ve been through this before. I know how to handle this.” Nobody.
Imagine what it must feel like when you feel the ground shifting under you, when you, like everyone else, have no cooking clue as to what ‘s happening and what could or should be done to get things back on track again.
One of the advantages of pressure is that it reveals weaknesses. I say this is an advantage because it provides the opportunity to address the weakness and hopefully eliminate it. In the case of leaders, the pressure of the pandemic has revealed a weakness that has been lurking for a little while now. That weakness concerns the fact that too many leaders secured their leadership positions on the basis of their technical skills and abilities and they therefore don’t necessarily have the competence to actually lead or manage people.
The weakness I refer to, therefore, is the trend of people being appointed to a position because of the function they’re able to perform (elevating what they do using their technical skills) at the expense of who they are (minimising who they are as human beings, in terms of qualities like humility, empathy, patience, self-awareness and so on).
I’m not saying this as a statement of criticism or blame – that was simply the way things have been done in the past and it’s no leader’s fault for believing that it’s their technical skills that make them a leader.
Korn Ferry CEO, Gary Burnison, put it very well when he said, speaking of leaders, “If someone is still wearing that pre-pandemic badge of honor – putting a premium on function and what they do over who they are – then it’s high time to take off that medal.”
If one were to distil all the complexities about this debate to one simplicity, it would become clear that leadership is now no longer only about what you do or can do, but also about who you are and how you treat others.
Previously, leaders were snugly secure in the knowledge that they could hide who they were behind the mask of what they did. Think about it. People are always asked, “What do you do for a living?” not, “Who are you for a living?” More to the point here, is the question,” What personal qualities qualify you for a leadership position?”
Such a question should now be asked because of the merging that is now taking place of the private and professional personas of leaders (and indeed of all employees). This is a new development and one that is challenging the status quo.
One of the fundamental starting points for any leadership development programme, therefore, is not a theoretical view of leadership and certain so-called leadership skills, but a journey to the centre of the self so that leaders can discover who they really are and, more importantly, whether they have the necessary qualities to be an effective leader.
So … when recruiting for leadership positions, spend more time on determining who the person is (identifying the qualities they possess) rather than focusing only on what they can do (interrogating only the technical skills they have).
When leadership becomes more about the person than the position, we might see leaders emerge who really will take their companies and their employees to a better future. After all, that, in a nutshell, is the essence of good leadership!