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Lead the new normal

Leadership

How to lead in the new normal

Published 29 November 2023 in Leadership • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

In an age where simultaneous crises are the norm, leadership success is not about having the core capabilities, but about creating the right operating system for the organization, says Shlomo Ben-Hur.

As we face ongoing uncertainty and unprecedented challenges catalyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflict, and global warming, what does good leadership look like?

In the changing landscape marked by the collapse of economic optimism and deep divisions in society, there is a need to reevaluate traditional organizational frameworks, including leadership concepts, to navigate the new complexities of the dynamic environment. In order to thrive, organizations and executives have to rethink their approach to leadership in an age where crisis is the new normal.

Outdated leadership models?

Over the past 50 years, different models have emerged in the leadership industry, ranging from charismatic and authentic leadership to stewardship, benevolent, and transformational leadership.

These models all have something in common – a focus on leadership capabilities assuming that with the right mix of individual characteristics such as behavior, values, and other internal qualities, performance will follow in any organization, any time, and anywhere.

But this approach which focuses exclusively on a leader’s qualities and traits does not take into account broader considerations that impact on organizational performance. While traditional leadership models posit that there are universal rules that leaders need to adhere to in order to be effective, studies have shown that this is not the case. In fact, there are use cases where organizational performance worsened, despite leaders having the requisite characteristics and capabilities, and enough evidence has been collected to show that the same leader could be extremely successful in driving performance in one organization and fail miserably to do so in another.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he brought clarity by addressing the company’s 135,000 employees in a live webcast every day, meeting daily with his team, weekly with his top 45 customers, and making sure his board was informed in a much higher frequency than during normal times
Aware of the importance of bringing clarity, during COVID-19, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg addressed the company’s 135,000 employees in a live webcast every day

If leaders with the right skills and traits succeed in some situations yet fail in others, it raises the question: are leadership core components sufficient to drive organizational performance and success?

The answer is no. According to a study I carried out with my co-author Nik Kinley on over 2,500 senior global leaders, having a strong set of behaviors and internal qualities does not equate to creating a positive impact on organizational results. This is because as leaders move up to senior leadership roles, their jobs become less about doing things themselves that directly drive results, and more about directing and supporting other people in doing so.

For years, the leadership industry has ignored contextual factors that are crucial for   effective leadership. These include business strategy, the geo-political conditions, structural changes, the behavior of competitors, organizational culture, the characteristics of teams, and the expectations of what leadership in this organization and its ecosystem should look like. Without context, leaders will not be able to make informed decisions, build relevant strategies, and foster a positive work culture.

A leadership operating system

The importance of context on leadership cannot be understated. In the book Leadership OS: The Operating System You Need to Succeed, which I co-authored with Nik Kinley, we presented a new approach to leadership and how to thrive in challenging times.

Based on research carried out over a 50-year period, the book explores how effective leaders create an operating system for their people, and emphasizes the importance of a well-defined structure to navigate complexity today. Similar to a computer operating system (OS), a leadership OS helps executives to ensure that workstreams and projects are run optimally while bringing out the best in people.

Unlike capability models, this leadership framework sets the tone for the way people interact and work with each other, and allows executives to find ways to optimize their operating environment and produce the best results.

Factors for leadership success 

To create an effective operating system, leaders need to focus on three characteristics that are critical to leadership success.

Trust
The first is trust, which is the single most important component of a successful operating system and highly correlated with individual and team performance. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, who addressed the videoconferencing platform’s string of security and privacy lapses in 2020, demonstrated the power of trust in influencing business success. By apologizing to the public and communicating transparently on the company’s plans to address the security issues, he helped restore trust with Zoom's users.
Clarity
Another key element of an effective operating system is clarity. Having an understanding of an organization’s overall direction and strategy creates a central alignment in organizational unity that is critical for strategy implementation and business success. Having clarity reduces uncertainty, channels activity, and creates cohesion within an organization. One example of a business leader who demonstrated the importance of clarity is Hans Vestberg, CEO of telecommunications giant Verizon. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he brought clarity by addressing the company’s 135,000 employees in a live webcast every day, meeting daily with his team, weekly with his top 45 customers, and making sure his board was informed in a much higher frequency than during normal times.
Momentum
Finally, there is momentum, which refers to the energy for sustained activity that comes from motivation, confidence, empowerment, and togetherness. Momentum generates drive and increases employee loyalty and commitment. At the same time, it counters cultural toxins, shielding employees against stress. 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee embodied the power of momentum when she rallied women from both sides of the divide to join a non-violent movement during the Liberian Civil War. Known for her efforts in promoting peace and women’s rights, the Liberian peace activist played a key role in building the momentum to bring about change that helped to end the war.
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In all, these three elements of leadership are essential for driving performance and crucial for organizational success.

Leading across life domains  

Beyond focusing on the organization and its key stakeholders, the new normal of the post-pandemic world presents organizational leaders with additional challenges they have never faced before. Work has become increasingly uncoupled from the physical office space as more companies embrace remote and hybrid models. Leaders are asked to show omnipresence through multiple channels and the overlap of work and non-work means almost no downtime.

Therefore, building on the work of my colleague Stewart Friedman, I challenge leaders I work with to think about how they show up in all domains of their lives — work, family, and community — ensuring their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. And while the time bind between these domains is real, they realize that what impacts their individual and organizational performance is the psychological interference between these domains. They are therefore called on to approach the totality of their lives with curiosity and creatively identify interventions that allow them to score across life’s domains.

We live in a complex period in the history of humankind and people and organizations are relying on their leaders to help them navigate this unchartered territory. Therefore, they need to study their context carefully and build operating systems in which they establish trust, create clarity, and drive momentum. And they need to attend to all domains of their lives because leadership in business is not just about business, it is about life.

This article is inspired by a session at IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance in Singaporewhich brings together executives from diverse sectors and geographies for a week of intense learning and sharing with IMD faculty and business experts. 

Authors

Shlomo Ben-Hur

Shlomo Ben-Hur

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur works on the psychological and cultural aspects of leadership, and the strategic and operational elements of talent management and corporate learning. He is the Director of IMD’s Changing Employee Behavior program and IMD’s Organizational Learning in Action, and author of the books Talent IntelligenceThe Business of Corporate Learning, Changing Employee Behavior: a Practical Guide for Managers and Leadership OS.

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