How not to be an old-school boss

20 July 2020 -

Person in lab coat working on 80s computerBe strong but not Alpha. Be aware of the shadow you cast. And never, ever say “don’t bring your problems to work”

Guest blogger, Nigel Girling

The word ‘strong’ has many connotations… the taste of a drink, the ability to lift heavy things, maybe even a smell….

However, in the context of leadership & management it has often been a generic term for a heroic ‘boss’ figure - commanding, tough, dynamic, authoritative, demanding, charismatic, confident and assured. The type of leader who exhibits many traits and facets that go back to a model created in the ‘Alpha’ paradigm, from which attitudes to leadership sprang.

Does that make sense today? I suggest not.

The world of leaders was already transforming, long before we encountered a pandemic – but after what we’ve all just been through together we have a totally changed landscape.

Our people are – and will remain – distributed. We may rarely be in the same room. We will communicate with them and seek to influence them virtually. We will need to unleash and engage them, inspire them to be creative, collaborative and innovative and we will need to support them, reassure them and be ready to enable and empower them in every sense.

These are not the capabilities of an old-school boss.

We’ve experienced – and hopefully learned from – the schisms of Brexit, the #MeToo movement, the recognition of the gender pay gap and lack of women leaders, racism and our lack of diversity in all its guises, a tsunami of mental health challenges, the Black Lives Matter movement... and now a global pandemic that has rewritten the rule book for societies everywhere.

To believe we can just hit the reset button and snap back to our ‘default’ approaches would be madness and a huge missed opportunity. What got us here is not what we need to take us forwards. What worked well in certainty often won’t work at all in uncertainty.

So what does ‘strong’ leadership mean now? I suggest many aspects, including these:

  • Strong values. To stand up for what you believe in and what is ‘right’. To be authentic and to serve a higher ‘purpose’ that is in the interests of all stakeholders, not just one or two.
  • Strong determination. To help, support and enable your people to unleash and develop their best self and to remove the obstacles that prevent or constrain them from their highest achievements.
  • Strong self-awareness. To be open, honest and vulnerable, to relate to people as human beings rather than job titles, to recognize the ‘shadow’ you cast and make it a help rather than a hindrance.
  • Strong resilience. The next year or two are going to be very challenging. Economic turmoil will continue, jobs will go or transform, organizations and even whole sectors will fall, new ones will rise. The population will be confused, often scared and perhaps have very different priorities. Our Governments will have many opportunities to intervene and take control, and not only where the population needs them to do so. Leaders will, more than ever, need to stand firm and do what is morally, ethically right and what is wise and human – despite the ‘slings & arrows of outrageous fortune’… and there will be many of those flying our way.
  • Strong mentality. Part of our resilience will come from maintaining our mental health and helping others to do the same. To say ‘don’t bring your problems to work’ now would be as unkind, as unhelpful and as foolish as encouraging racist, sexist or homophobic views in the workplace. We simply can’t afford it, for all our sakes. You can’t help your people and your other stakeholders if you are broken. Learn how to maintain your fortitude and look after yourself physically and mentally. Your people will need you.

All of this won’t simply ‘happen’. We can’t magic them into existence. You can only bring these strengths to fruition – and maintain them – through intelligent and diligent effort and a constancy of purpose.

You must dedicate time every week to growing your own capabilities and to helping others to do the same. You will need to be a mentor and a coach, not a ruler or supervisor.

The leader of tomorrow will serve their purpose, their stakeholders and – especially - their people.

Time to step up.

Have you thought about your leadership style? Find out which category you fall under - and which ones suit your team best...