What do you think of when you think of leadership? And what does leadership entail in the current context of crisis and uncertainty?

Traditionally, leadership is broadly understood as a set of skills – a matrix of technical and certain psychological or emotional competencies geared to managing people and resources in order to optimise outcomes.

Technical or hard skills have always been very much on the radar of all aspiring leaders, and rightly so. Managing any organisation successfully is contingent on truly understanding its different mechanisms; the interplay of finance, accounting, human resource management, marketing, sales, supply management – all of the diverse cogs that turn together and that drive day-to-day operations and continuity.

More recently though, there’s a growing focus on the so-called soft skills; the more human competencies and attributes that also form an essential part of the leadership toolkit. Leadership experts and researchers have highlighted the importance of things like compassion, communication skills, active listening or empathy in motivating, aligning and optimising human performance in the workplace.

McKinsey and others have published articles and studies that reveal that “compassionate leaders” outperform others and are more successful in fostering team spirit, engagement and loyalty. And in times of crisis, such as the present pandemic, this type of leadership becomes even more critical.

So what are these soft skills? And more importantly, how do you develop them?

First off, a lot depends on your mindset. The renowned US psychologist, Carol Dweck, has dedicated her career to shedding light on our mindsets and how personality and motivation tie to success. Broadly speaking, Dweck organises leaders into two mindsets: fixed and growth.

People with a growth mindset believe that they (and others) can develop, evolve and adapt to new circumstances or contexts over time. Conversely, the fixed mindset sees human behaviour as somehow set and immutable. We are who we are, and we don’t change.

Key to developing your soft skills as a leader is first to adopt a growth mindset; to embrace the possibility of change and growth. And that means reframing failure or challenge as opportunity; acknowledging and embracing imperfection; and leveraging what Dweck calls the “power of yet” – in other words, understanding that knowledge and skills are attainable over time and with effort.

Having a growth mindset means you are open to change in the way you think, learn and develop new skills – including the soft skills that compassionate leaders will need to deploy to steer their teams and organisations out of this crisis and towards the next normal.

Imperial’s Lisa Umenyiora, Executive Director of Careers, has run studies and surveys over the course of the pandemic looking at the kinds of qualities or soft skills that are increasingly on-demand and on the radar of organisations looking to rebuild and fortify their position as we enter the post-Covid landscape.

Here are just some of them.

1. Communication

Good communication is key not only to the flow transfer or important information within a team, but also to the shared understanding of culture, values and purpose of the organisation. Leaders who are effective communicators are better able to motivate, mobilise and align people and resources, especially in uncertain and complex environments. Think about how you communicate with your team, and focus on what matters – the meaning of your messages – and on how to keep things clear and simple. Think too about the way you use your body language, and how you decide when to be quiet and to proactively listen.

2. Active listening

Listening effectively means you capture vital information at the right time from the right person. But that’s not all. Leaders who actively listen also signal to their team members that they care, value and appreciate them as individuals; and that their input, opinion and expertise matter. And this is critical to building strong interpersonal relations and engagement which are critical to weathering difficult times.

3. Candour

In “normal” times, trust matters. But in times of crisis and uncertainty, trust is absolutely vital. Effective leaders understand that building trust is a two-way process and that it hinges on transparency, candour and vulnerability. Being honest, authentic and open even – perhaps especially – when you don’t have all the answers, demonstrates that you are a leader who can be trusted; that you have the human warmth as well as the competence to rally your team around a shared purpose and act in the interest of all.

4. Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to imagine and to understand another person’s perspective, experience and feelings. It’s the ability to “put yourself in the shoes” of someone else and see things from their point of view. Not only does empathy help leaders to build stronger, supportive relationships with employees – enabling them to succeed and excel – it also helps to understand the causes of performance issues or poor outcomes.

Empathy, like the other qualities mentioned here, is a skill that can be learnt, practised and developed. Taking time to think about why an employee or colleague makes a certain proposal or suggestion before critiquing or accepting it helps unlock a deeper understanding of motivation and perspective. So too will thinking about the impact or effect of your own words and actions – and remembering to care about what that impact might be.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a reckoning in terms of the way we work. But there is also an imperative to re-think and reevaluate the way that we lead. And it seems likely that even as this crisis fades, a new model of effective leadership built on empathy, candour, transparency, compassion and a willingness to listen will not just endure, but will actually determine who thrives in the new normal. (And who doesn’t.)


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