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How Leadership is changing – and how it needs to change – in a world post pandemic

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The world has changed, and with it the way we do business. At TPCL we work with leaders in a diverse range of organisations, industries and countries, and we have seen first hand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to review, adapt and improve the way businesses operate because of it.

What has changed? What needs to change? How can businesses respond in a way that ensures their continued success? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring these issues and more through a series of panel discussions featuring TPCL’s managing partners from around the world.

In today’s roundup, we’re looking at the subject of leadership itself. Leadership has always had its challenges but never more so than in times of crisis. And 2020 has certainly taken our idea of a crisis to a whole new level.

So how has leadership changed in the wake of the pandemic? And how will it need to continue to change as we head into an uncertain future? We spoke to five of TPCL’s country leaders to get their perspectives:

  • Annelieke Jense, TPCL’s current Chairperson
  • Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner for TPCL Italy
  • Christian Scholtes, Managing Partner for TPCL Romania
  • Deva Param, Managing Partner for TPCL Malaysia and SEA (South East Asia)
  • Andrew McDowell, Managing Partner for TPCL UK

Collaboration beats command and control

In a sense, leadership as a construct hasn’t changed. But leadership styles evolve over time and a crisis can bring about a step change, not least because it is at these times that we look to our leaders to guide us.

Andrew McDowell, Managing Partner for TPCL UK, believes the old-fashioned “great man or great woman” approach to leadership is so clearly inadequate for managing a situation like the pandemic.

“The only response to something like this has to be collective,” he says. “It requires cooperation and integration of multiple systems, by multiple people, with multiple perspectives. And you can’t do that by just leading from the top.”

Christian Scholtes, Managing Partner for TPCL in Romania, agrees that the old “command and control” management style has become obsolete. The change has been coming for some time, he says, spurred by factors ranging from the rise of the Millenial and Gen Z generations to the rapid pace of development in all sorts of technological areas.

“They all contribute together to creating organisational contexts where you need to have conversations and to build environments where initiative and innovation can happen at all levels of organisation,” he says.

“When COVID happened, it just made it even more obvious. Now, more than ever, you need to have leaders who act as servants of their teams.”

But vision and direction are still crucial

Although the old “command and control” style of leadership is outdated, setting and articulating an organisation’s vision and encouraging people towards it is fundamental to a leader’s role.

“While command and control is not particularly helpful in these circumstances, feeling like someone is in charge is,” says Andrew McDowell. “The confidence that someone is leading us towards something – being able to articulate that to people is important.”

By setting a purpose, a leader allows their team to derive meaning from their work.

Andrew adds: “Where we actually get engagement and commitment from people – particularly in this context where people are evaluating, ‘Is it really worth me putting in my discretionary effort in these circumstances which are so challenging?’ – is the leader’s role in helping people translate meaning from their role.

“How does what they do meaningfully contribute towards a purpose? And how does their role meaningfully help them extract value from what they’re doing?”

Deva Param is TPCL’s managing partner for Malaysia and SEA. In his work with leaders across the region, his challenge to clients is always to define their “base grand purpose” and communicate it through the organisation. This is especially true in times of change.

“If there’s a change in purpose because of this pandemic, then everybody needs to know about this,” he says. “Before we go into this big change, we first need to understand what our values are, what the purpose of the organisation is, what makes us stay relevant.”

Leaders need to get comfortable with not knowing

Of course, many leaders will be wondering how it’s possible to have a vision when the future is so uncertain. While we’ve never been able to accurately predict what’s going to happen next, recent events have made leaders take a fresh look at how they deal with uncertainty.

“I think leadership has manifested itself as that space of stepping into the unknown and working with that complexity which is difficult to summarise, putting together different pieces of the puzzle,” says Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner for TPCL Italy.

It takes a willingness to listen, he adds. “Not taking for granted that you know now because you’ve known in the past but staying open to listen continuously to what the emerging need is, what the possibilities are, and acting responsibly, managing the risks of stepping into those unknown spaces.

“We’ve all had to learn to be accustomed to walking that fine line between knowing and not knowing. Trying things out and adapting and controlling all that we can control – and taking responsibility for that – but also surrendering and letting go of what we can’t control.”

For many leaders this will take them well out of their comfort zones and require a great deal of courage and vulnerability. But Andrew McDowell believes these traits will pay off.

“If I think about the people that I’ve worked with and supported during the pandemic, the ones who have delivered the most value to their organisations are the ones who have had the courage to stay in relationship with not knowing the answer,” he says.

“It’s quite a paradox. Leaders are perceived as confident when they are setting the direction for an organisation but they also need to be open about not knowing. It feels like this experience that we’ve all had together has really shone a light on the fact that leadership requires staying in relationship with the delicate balance between knowing and not knowing.”

In part two of this panel discussion, Annelieke and the rest of the team explore the importance of good communication, the need for focus on wellbeing and resilience in a virtual world, and the benefits of leaders actually embracing uncertainty.

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