Change has always been, and will always be, a constant. But in the last couple of years, this change has accelerated considerably. The raft of current global challenges, including climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, pollution, social inequality, migration, and the refugee crisis, is becoming more and more visible, and people expect their organizations to address them. The great profit motive is being challenged, and employees are placing greater scrutiny on their organizations than ever before. At the same time, they’re also revisiting their own priorities around the work they’re prepared to do, how they’re prepared to do it, and when they’re prepared to do it. This has led to what is being called The Great Resignation, and how organizations choose to respond to these challenges will determine whether their people decide to stay.
The biggest leadership challenge of our times is to embrace this change. It’s tumultuous but exciting, and there are many examples of progressive, human-centered organizations finding ways to make a profit whilst doing good. The role of the leader in these organizations has shifted away from a hierarchical position of command and control towards being a provider of optimism, meaning, value, and structure. It is about supporting, inspiring, and collaborating with people, understanding them as individuals, and empowering them on their journey toward becoming leaders.
But how does an individual leader go about making these changes to their approach? It’s challenging and, therefore, vital that organizations support leaders at all levels in doing so. This might have been attempted in the past by developing off-site, multi-tier development programs, sheep-dipping people through them, and then expecting them to come out to the other side ready to perform. But now, this is shifting towards a more human-centered approach, which means getting leaders together and asking them ‘how best to support our leaders?’ It means developing a culture in which the capacity for leadership action is democratic and pervasive – a culture in which leaders develop leaders.
Here are four key ways to create this culture in your organization:
1. Engage and involve
People own what they create. So if you have a change need, involve your people in it from the get-go – especially those who will be impacted by the change. Bring this group together, help them experience the need for change, show them examples of good and bad practices, and then have some wonderful, quality conversations about it. With the right balance of facilitation and collaboration, this open dialogue will produce the answers you need. It will also cement the crucial emotional engagement for any change initiative to succeed. Collaborative change processes are rich learning experiences, cementing emotional engagement, increasing people’s confidence, and making it more likely that they will step up to the plate again in the future.
2. Foster a feedback culture
Self-awareness is a foundational leadership ability, but too often in organizations, people are afraid of feedback – scared of confrontation, causing trouble, or hearing something they won’t like. Encourage a feedback culture in your organization by bringing a small group of people together to complete a task. Afterwards, ask them to discuss how well they thought they worked together. Make sure this process is two-way by getting each person to invite feedback from everyone else in the group. This may feel unnatural and scary at first, but open, honest conversation and two-way feedback are both measures of a healthy organization. Self-awareness is accelerated once giving and receiving feedback is incorporated into your everyday practice.
3. Model a human-centered approach to leadership
Human-centered leadership is fundamentally about understanding the people you work with. Finding the time to have regular one-on-ones with your people and engaging them in open, honest, and empathetic dialogue will allow you to get to know them as individuals and develop a bedrock of trust to build your relationship on. This understanding will enable you to provide them with the right balance of support and challenge, empowering rather than instructing, collaborating rather than working separately, and allowing them on their own journey towards becoming a human-centered leader.
4. Create space for leadership to emerge "Notice, Decide, Act."
Developing a leadership culture is not about telling people how to be better leaders but about creating the opportunity for leadership to emerge organically. One of the most successful ways to do this is to take an innovation process and throw it wide open, bringing a diverse group of people into a room to talk about how to achieve it. This creates space for leadership to emerge from unexpected places. You can further enable this by providing the right conditions: support, provocation, openness, and challenge. Use this strategy to foster a culture in which leadership action can come from anywhere – a culture in which anyone can notice the need for change, decide what to do about it, and act.
By adopting these strategies and mindset shifts, you will model and foster the conditions for a human-centered approach to leadership: self-awareness, collaboration, empathy, and a balance of support and challenge tailored to the individual. This is how you will create the leadership you think you need by encouraging and inspiring others to develop it for themselves.
About David Williams: David co-founded Impact in 1980 to explore adventure and experiential learning in people development. Now with over 200 colleagues working in the UK, Europe, America and Asia Pacific, Impact has a solid reputation for enabling clients to build leadership capacity and navigate complex change. To stay grounded, Dave rears rare breed cattle and sheep.