Four Letters for Leaders in 2021


As we embrace a new year, we have all experienced what Charles Dickens would call "the best of times" (with family/applying new technologies) and "the worst of times" - loss of loved ones, income, freedom and the emergence/resurgence of racism and ethic bias.


My heart goes out to the hospitality, tourism and travel industries, especially, who have been most affected by the pandemic and in normal times provide invaluable opportunities for us all to enjoy life, relax and be exposed to fresh places and perspectives.


As a coach of leaders and team performance accelerator for more than 20 years, I urge you, fellow leader, to reflect on 2020 and embrace what you can do in 2021, and beyond.


When working on mental agility and resilience with international athletes, one of the key factors I have emphasized is controlling the controllables. An athlete can always control her attitude, conditioning, nutrition, breathing and self-talk, for example, but seldom her physical environment or opposition.


Bob Johansen (from IFTF) proposed four antidotes to an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA): vision, understanding, clarity and agility. I believe that fleshing these out provides a valuable lens on leading beyond 2020.


1. Vision

When outbreaks and lockdowns can surface with little notice, we need to be visionary.

Vision concerns the present and the future. We need to see clearly how things are, not allow the self-deception that easily creeps into our reporting, guided by well-meaning marketing rhetoric to impress shareholders. Lifting people's eyes off their circumstance and reminding them of how their work matters is also important, enabling team members to envision what their work contributes to the bigger picture. Is there meaning in the work? Is your organizational purpose (reason for existence, beyond profit) known, enthusiastically embraced by all key stakeholders and referred to regularly in strategic discussions? If we don't communicate vision, we leave it to chance and the realm of disappearing WhatsApp chats and TikTok videos.


A good example of vision utilized well is the Cabinet War Rooms. Churchill's nerve-centre in central London received up-to-the-minute information from the battlefront in WW2, as well as housing meeting rooms and a direct line to the US President (cutting-edge technology at the time). It was planned in the 1920's (after WW1) and executed in the 30's, serving the nation well in the 40's.


2. Understanding

William Glasser summarized human psychological needs into four easy-to-understand terms. I have cross-referenced these with the pre-eminent modern motivational theory (Self-determination Theory). Beyond survival (a given - thank-you, Mr. Maslow), we need freedom (autonomy), love and belonging (relatedness), power (competence) and fun. Why does Glasser include fun? Because innovation comes through exploration - play, prototyping - and that requires the space to have some fun outside of the normal parameters.


Focusing in on belonging, one organization I coached had wonderful policies supporting diversity and redressing wrongs of the past - critical and broadly legislated in South Africa. They did not, however, help the "outsiders" to be included (belong) - which meant that even Partners in the firm left, since they didn't feel it was a "safe" place for their network to belong, either. Trust is a pre-cursor to understanding. It comes from a place of integrity, where I believe you're authentically interested in me/my views, based on my experience of you over time.


Understanding is evidence of a commitment to challenge my thinking: being curious about what you think and how and why you do what you do. It allows me to empathize and to get to grips with your values and spirit of intent, rather than making assumptions based on your words or actions alone. This isn't judgmental; rather, it is built on enquiry. It goes beyond tolerance - "allowing" others to co-exist peacefully - to seeking out better "truth", if you will. It allows us to grow, through "iron sharpening iron" and seeing things differently, since innovation thrives in diverse environments, along with learning and well-being. But I digress.


3. Clarity

Finding it tough to manage remote workers and ensure quality? What you may be missing is control, or being able to elicit action through fear - of consequences, embarrassment, loss. I encourage you to embrace the loss of these stalwarts of our organizations. These are aged companions no longer worthy of your time. Control suppresses choice, which is a basic human need. Control, therefore, catalyzes resistance. Why not, instead, embrace clarity and choice, with a "gig economy" mindset?


Clear expectations of each other improve relationships and ensure that feedback is open, honest and more regular. Clear boundaries, authority and roles minimize conflict and anxiety, through discussing what is mine/yours, what I can/can't authorize without input and who is best at what (and why). Combined with shared standards that are trained, tested and accredited, excellence is extremely likely to follow: trust enabling autonomy that leads to initiative, identification, belonging and a knowledge-sharing culture.


Providing choice (options, even if they aren't plentiful) further develops buy-in and stifles the passive-aggressive behavior that characterizes many organisations, costing millions each year through loss of productivity: withholding, procrastination, avoidance and low standards. Choice plays to personal and team strengths, while not minimizing the need to arrest debilitating weaknesses. And it will increasingly be demanded by our workforce, who now prefer to have flexibility in terms of when and where they work, if not how.


4. Agility

"The letter of the law" is often what is emphasized in large (and even medium) organizations, where the policies, procedures and systems take priority over relationships, customization and individual strengths. If we lead by the letter of the law, we may get compliance, but we will certainly not get engagement, excellence and innovation. We don't listen when we're focused on enforcing legislation. We don't innovate when we're restricted by the tools we have to use, the environments we're allowed to frequent or the networks we're allowed to entertain.


I'm sure that you have needed to adapt in many ways since the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement to transform racism in society took centre stage. You are agile. Organizations can adapt quickly when they have no other choice, because they consist of people, who are the most adaptable species. But can you remain agile, and "spread the joy" of what worked in the crisis to areas that need your constant input and review?


I mentioned the "gig economy" earlier. It is simply the adoption of a "valued freelancer" approach to team composition and, perhaps, remuneration. Project Managers are used to including skilled individuals on diverse projects, based on how their skills fit with others on those teams. As a musician, I have "subbed" (been substituted) for other drummers at gigs, and formed part of ensembles, while alternating with performances with my own band. In our band, I sing backing vocals and play a full drumkit. I also co-write lyrics and some of the music. In other bands, I am only invited to play what is missing, be it electronic or acoustic percussion, or vocals. There is no conflict of interest and no ego involved. Only different needs.


There is some talk now of being "role-based" organizations. The essence is that unrelated roles can be embraced, and job titles cease to define people and their contribution. Rather, it is the skill, harnessed into roles that are utilized by various teams, that counts. Of course, managing such people is then more complex, as is measuring their performance. But it is worthwhile in the long-term, because it keeps us agile, our people energized and allows leaders to focus on leading and overseeing, rather than getting stuck in the details of operations. That doesn't, of course, mean that we can isolate ourselves in our ivory towers or home offices, away from our teams and customers. Rather, it means that we keep the main thing the main thing, and sacrifice ego on the altar of vision.


We have already seen Woolworths sell its David Jones property in Sydney, and many other corporates are consolidating their balance sheet in a bid to ensure profitability. Why not? Buildings are less needed now than skill, emotional intelligence and connectivity. Skill needs to be updated and in some cases upgraded, in order to cater for a mostly-virtual delivery mechanism and interface. Not only is it practical; it is purposeful and it is preferred by most employees, who are now accustomed to structuring time around their priorities - which mostly places family needs above regular working hours, but ensures delivery on deadlines. Additionally, new mergers and acquisitions will require integration across all the areas mentioned. It's not a tall order, but it is an important one.


Here's to the new way of working, which underlines our vision, understanding, clarity and agility!



For help with implementing any of the above-mentioned principles, please feel free to reach out to us. We exist for the benefit of others.


Hylton Gudmanz is a founder of Focused People Consulting. He is a sought-after speaker, coach and consultant, working hands-on with leaders to develop their teams and sustain high performance. He is also a freelance drummer and avid coffee drinker.

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