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The Rise of the New Leader
by Ngozi Weller
October 18, 2021
When I began my corporate career as a fresh-faced 21-year-old newly freed from the hallowed halls of higher education, I felt relatively confident in my understanding of the tenets of leadership. That is, I was sure I knew what a good boss looked like, and I hoped that I might even learn to be one in my turn. My degree had been in management, and through the medium of books, papers, and lectures, I’d absorbed the sound theoretical leadership practices of the ’90s. I’d been taught that a good manager would recognise and nurture potential, and that employees were individual assets rather than numbers or roles. Unfortunately, my expectations did turn out to be rather idealistic.
Was that entirely my fault? Yes and no. You see, whilst I wasn’t living in fairyland I think I did have this assumption that, as it was relatively common knowledge which traits made for a good leader, everyone who occupied leadership positions would possess these qualities. After all, if they didn’t, why would these people have ever been promoted into senior positions?
What I came to realise after a few years into my tenure at Big Oil was that whilst leadership and interpersonal skills are valued in any business environment, technical skills are held above all else. As a result, companies traditionally promote their best and brightest to positions of increasing seniority based on how successfully a person manages their individual responsibilities. The top-performing sales consultant is generally promoted to team leader. If the team succeeds, they may be made Regional Manager and so on.
Many people like this approach, and with good reason; on paper, it does seem a fair, merit-based approach to climbing the corporate ladder, but there are some drawbacks. The most significant is that this approach breeds an infrastructure of people managers who are in their position due to their ability to manage roles, not people. This is not to say that there aren’t good managers, of course, there are; I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many. Some companies are fortunate enough to be blessed with people managers who possess both technical and interpersonal skills. They have leaders who can meet the threshold of success and expertise whilst possessing all those traits I read about in my university textbook. However, as leaders are rarely promoted based on these traits, they are no guarantee. In fact, quite often, navigating a workplace can be rather like eating a bag of revels; for every toffee flavoured sweet, there’s about five raisins or coffee just waiting to spoil your day.
Now, this managerial lucky dip worked fine for a while, but the issue is that it takes a very old fashioned approach to the relationship between work and wellbeing. It assumes that an individual’s place of work should take a hands-off approach to employee wellbeing; that it is not the job of an employer to do what they can to ensure that their working environment is as healthy or psychologically safe as possible. This is an attitude that perhaps floated a decade ago, but in the past few years, particularly in the post-COVID world, it’s sinking hard.
Whilst COVID cannot be held solely accountable for the mental health crisis sweeping the nation, its impact cannot be denied. To give but a few examples, in June of last year, the Royal College of Psychiatrists surveyed 389 of their members, and of this number 46% reported a rise in emergency interventions, and an additional 55% an increase in the urgency of these interventions, since the pandemic began. Another survey, taken in the same month by the Office for National Statistics revealed that almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to experience some form of depression during the COVID pandemic, an increase of 100% from their pre-COVID levels, which stood at about one in ten (9.7%). Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the ‘new psychiatric disorders’ risk, with many individuals who have never previously suffered from any form of mental illness being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or insomnia.
This rising need has brought about a significant change in the global workforce. Mental health was a topic that was, until quite recently, very taboo. However, crisis and necessity have led many to change their attitudes towards the subject. Whereas previously, many would’ve been happy to view their jobs and wellbeing as two separate topics, the conversation is beginning to overlap. People can no longer afford to engage in careers that fail to support their mental health, and companies can no longer afford to have them there either. After all, even before the pandemic, the January 2020 Deloitte report on “mental health & employers: refreshing the case for investors” estimated the cost of mental ill-health to employers to be up to £45 billion each year.
So, what has management got to do with this? Well, the answer is two-fold. First and foremost, training your managers in mental health matters, and doing your best to turn them into the leadership ideal is perhaps the most effective way of ensuring pervasive change within the workplace. Employee wellbeing problems and their knock-on effect on workplace productivity could largely be avoided if our leaders embraced the characteristics that create psychologically safe working environments. Technical excellence is essential, but in a post-pandemic world, employers must begin training their people managers to manage people, which means cultivating interpersonal or ‘soft’ skills alongside other talents.
The second reason comes off the back of this, and it is that in their post-COVID, impacted states, many employees have a desire for a new type of leader. There are plenty of stats that can demonstrate this demand. The ILM’s 2020 report ‘Leading Through Challenging Times’ showed that three quarters (73%) of employees believed their companies’ leadership had been lacking during the pandemic. With approximately two thirds (68%) of respondents reporting that they expected their leadership to develop their people management skills as we advance. This line of argument is supported by a recent City and Guild’s poll in which more than two-thirds of employees (68%) viewed people management as an essential leadership skill. However, nearly half of respondents (45%) considered it to be lacking within the skillset of their direct management.
Beyond these surveys, I believe that the rise of a new leadership ideal can be viewed in broader and more cultural ways. Although it may be four months ago now, I can’t help but think about the praise that England football manager Gareth Southgate received surrounding his leadership attitude throughout the Euros. Take Gary Neville’s off the cuff comments following the semi-final:
The standard of leaders in this country the past couple of years has been poor, looking at that man [Southgate], he’s everything a leader should be, respectful, humble, he tells the truth.
What I found so interesting about this comment, and the reason it really stuck with me, is that when put on the spot, it wasn’t Southgate’s innovation or his ability to select diverse talent that Neville picked up on. Instead, the focus was on his interpersonal skills. Of course, Southgate’s technical skills were appreciated, for I doubt Neville would’ve been so kind if Southgate hadn’t led England to the final, but these were not the virtues that Neville was drawn to in an unscripted moment. Instead, what was highlighted was Southgate’s interpersonal skills, his ability to generate a culture of respect by being respectful in his turn. His ability to maintain a channel of open communication through the use of persistent openness and honesty.
My memory is that Neville’s comments were cheered on every social media platform for a good few weeks, with hundreds of thousands of individuals re-sharing the clip and commenting on how his words echo their own sentiment. It’s clear that the comments struck a nerve with many people around the country, and for this reason, I’ve continued to think of the response as a strong example of the country’s desire a new type of leadership.
Now, I am not suggesting that companies ought to begin to model their leaders after a football manager. However, a shift towards the leadership model that individuals like Southgate embody is clearly being both necessitated and demanded. To have a significant impact on the mental health tidal wave sweeping the world, companies must equip their managers with the tools they need to be mentally healthy leaders capable of supporting their employees. Technical talent is no longer enough; we must begin to invest in filling the ‘soft-skill gap’ that the COVID pandemic has revealed.
At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.