How to keep up with evolving demands of leadership

How to keep up with evolving demands of leadership

In 2012, Monkey Puzzle Training ran a survey of over 60 UK and European business leaders to understand what kinds of people were in leadership roles and what they enjoyed and found challenging in those roles.

In 2020, we reran the same survey to see what had shifted for leaders. The most surprising result was how little had changed in terms of their day-to-day experience. The biggest challenges remained the same: managing time and dealing with difficult behaviour.

What has changed over past decade are the topics and expectations business leaders now have to deal with. Along with strategic thinking and making business decisions, modern leaders are faced with managing mental health, wellbeing, psychological safety, diversity, and inclusion.

What’s more, the qualities leaders are expected to embody have grown. Leaders are now required to be strong yet vulnerable, provide both autonomy and protection, and be clear and straightforward yet also understand complex nuances. It is an ever-growing list of expectations that is exhausting and unrealistic for any single person.

How has the pandemic affected leadership?
Of course, since the research, we’ve all experienced a two-year pandemic, bringing with it changes unprecedented in the history of modern working.

What’s more, remote working has likely exacerbated any existing personal issues. The stress and frustration of being stuck indoors combined with the lack of casual conversation and interaction mean that interpersonal issues will be pushed underground.

Now that people are returning to the office, we are now seeing an explosion of pent-up grievances. These can be harder to spot and deal with from a leadership perspective. But rather than avoid these issues, leaders will need to get really good at facing up to hard conversations, mediating, and, where necessary, facilitating exits.

Leaders are facing burnout
Dealing with your own stress, the interpersonal issues of colleagues, and the already exhausting list of expectations leaves many leaders stuck struggling to meet new demands while still trying to master the essentials. It’s no surprise, then, that burnout rates in leadership are reaching alarming levels and many people are seeking less stressful roles.

But without good leaders, the world stops working properly. We need people who are able to find a balance between these qualities and expectations while managing to motivate and inspire people.

Rather than focusing on creating super-humans capable of managing everything perfectly, it’s more practical to focus on five steps you and others can personally implement, to become better leaders, rather than perfect leaders:

5 Steps to being a good leader

  • Accepting you can’t be everything to everyone

It’s unlikely you will ever be the leader everyone wants you to be, so let go of your perfectionist tendencies and get to know your limitations.

Often, leaders are told to iron out and expand their limitations. Yet, this will often leave you giving up developing your strengths by overextending yourself into a weakness. There’s simply not enough time to focus on both. Instead, it is usually possible to find ways around your limitations. If you’re not great at organisation, you can find support from a deputy, for example.

Start by finding your unique advantage ─ the place where the Venn diagram of strengths, business needs, and personal enjoyment overlap. Anything else you can either work on improving or find someone else to plug the gaps.

  • Using feedback for self-development

Once you know your unique strengths and values, and have identified your weak spots, identify and work on one area you would like to improve.

It is useful and important to use feedback to work on self-development. You may think that your organisation skills are weak but perhaps your team doesn’t need organising as much as attention to detail.

Elicit feedback from a variety of trusted sources and look for themes and perspectives on your behaviour. However, be wary of unsolicited feedback as there is often an agenda attached.

Of course, getting honest and trustworthy feedback without it hitting all your hot buttons is difficult. People you manage are unlikely to give you particularly negative feedback while those in senior management may be too far removed from the day-to-day.

A third-party training provider or a coach can be invaluable for this activity. They can gain honest feedback, filter out unhelpful content, and present key themes in a way that avoids hot buttons.

  • Setting realistic leadership development goals

Once you know what gaps there are to fill, you can set realistic goals and work towards them. It is always better to plug holes and work step by step than to try jumping the staircase in one go.

Avoid setting any goals that your brain won’t accept. If it’s not relevant to you or your role or doesn’t fit your personality, it will make it impossible to achieve. You should also try to avoid getting distracted by the ‘next big thing’ ─ fads fade but good leadership, as our survey shows, stands the test of time.

Once you have identified relevant and useful goals, begin practising them in a safe environment where you can risk getting them wrong. You’re unlikely to be great at first, so it is unwise to practice your new skill when there is a lot on the line.

Applying new strategic thinking skills to a multi-million-pound pitch is risky and could lead to a major setback. Instead, try applying it to your internal strategy first and get feedback from the wider team to help you improve.

  • Using a coach or mentor

Coaches and/or mentors can be an invaluable resource. Not only can they provide a different perspective, but they can also be a compassionate ear to express your own fears and frustrations.

The most important thing is to find someone who is qualified. Coaching is not a regulated profession, so look for someone who is registered with a professional body and has good training. Coaching is about combining experience with a specific skillset and not everyone is suited to it.

It may also be useful to ask whether they are appropriate to your profession. Needing to explain the context and industry to your coach can be a massive waste of time. So, some background technical knowledge can be extremely useful.

However, the absolute key thing to look for in a coach is someone with whom you feel like you could share your weaknesses and whom you trust. Needy, emotionally dysfunctional coaches are a nightmare as the work becomes more about keeping them happy than having your own needs met. Coaches aren’t there to be liked; they are there to help you improve.

Mentoring is often more specific to your job. Mentors are often found in your network and/or organisation (e.g., peer mentoring, swapping skills and experience). The benefit of mentors from your network or organisation is that it takes away hierarchy, making it work well for senior leaders or anyone under a strict NDA.

  • Setting and then maintaining boundaries

While leaders are expected to manage the (increasingly explicit) boundaries of colleagues, it is not always seen as okay to make a case for your own wellbeing. Leaders are expected to be ‘always on’ and available to both employees and senior management.

As such, it is important to get used to saying ‘no’ without saying ‘no’ ─ being unavailable without making a big deal about it. When the business is fast-paced and mission-led, your case for your own wellbeing can go unheard, but you can still manage it for yourself.

Start by defining your boundaries. Do you need to step away from your phone in the evenings or perhaps it is a promise to yourself not to work late at least two nights a week?

Once you have identified your own boundaries, stick to them. You don’t need to broadcast that you will be unavailable after seven o’clock, simply be unavailable. People will get used to these quiet boundaries without them being made explicit.

However, when you’re all in, be all in. Work hard, develop skills, overcome weaknesses and find a style of leadership that emphasises your unique talents. Just don’t be a leader all the time. It is important to make time for yourself so that you avoid burn out!

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