Between the global pandemic and widespread protests demanding racial justice, organizational transformation feels more important than ever. But true change requires a new leadership mindset. Building the resilience to navigate these world-altering shifts takes a ge­nuinely human-centered approach.

In our 2020 research study, “Catalysts in Action: Applying the Cultural Levers of Transformation,” we spoke to 500 transformation leaders across four regions – the U.S., the U.K., Germany and China – and uncovered that the leaders best prepared to drive transformation share five traits. We also found that the leaders who feel most optimistic about the future are those who cultivate these traits and understand that they are required to build organizations that are human-centered.

Based on our research, here are the five leadership traits needed to reignite and reimagine your business this year:

1. Harnessing Many Voices

Executives tend to see themselves as the primary drivers of change. But in reality, transformation can’t work that way. One of the most crucial leadership behaviors we found across each of the four regions in our study is the ability to harness the “employee voice” of an organization. This leadership trait was revealed when leaders enabled and elevated the ideas, opinions and feedback of everyone at every level of the organization to allow for deep cross-functional collaboration and engagement. The leaders who do this recognize that often, middle managers–not the C-suite–are the key change agents. Encouraging ideas and fueling co-creation has become a key element to enable organizational transformation.

2. Embracing Empathy

Empathy per se is not a new concept – it is about understanding how people deal with uncertainty through change. But in times of constant change, transformation leaders must understand their employees’ sentiments towards it and help them cope with it accordingly. In the current context, this means physically protecting people, encouraging remote work, staggering shifts and massive disinfectant efforts. But more important, it means protecting people emotionally, understanding employee feelings and acknowledging the uncertain transition to the other side. Leaders need to bring leadership traits rooted in empathy, certainty and change readiness together to help employees feel confident that they can safely navigate the change, even when change continues to be the new norm.

Demonstrating empathy for employees was particularly heightened among leaders in the U.K., as well as in Germany.

3. Allowing Agility and Curiosity

On its own, agility helps companies pivot in new directions and create value in different ways. But what actually generates the ideas for these new directions requires curiosity. Curiosity is what directs leaders to explore and try new things. While agility allows them to adapt to those new ways of doing things quickly. Taken together, they form a powerful combination.

We expected agility to emerge as especially important in China. COVID-19 was fully present there as we fielded our survey, and it was clear to leaders that they had to find entirely new ways to respond to the devastating illness and frightened, grieving workers. But it appeared as essential in all regions, closely linked to leaders’ self-assessed ability to steer companies through a global crisis.

4. Fostering the Development of Others

Leaders today need to integrate a dedicated approach to agile development across the board, equipping the workforce for the Digital Age, and not leaving anyone behind. This commitment to developing organizational talent came through as one of the top-rated characteristics overall  – notably in China and the U.S. Based on the recognition that transformation requires a high degree of personal growth, leaders should look to foster the development of others. They should encourage a “fail-fast & learn” mentality, where experimentation and failure are permitted, as a key leadership trait. Only this will allow employees individually and the organization as a whole to move forward – more meaningful individual contributions will help achieve the company’s ambition better and faster.

5. Staying the Course

The most optimistic leaders have made an impressive commitment to personal growth, with many closely identifying with the “growth mindset” first researched by American educator Carol Dweck. They think they can develop their own talents and abilities through effort, persistence and education–continually improving upon their leadership traits. This is especially pronounced in the U.S. and the U.K. Even in the context of COVID-19, those leaders that acknowledge the interplay between personal growth and optimism in the face of adversity – using the surrounding disruption as a learning opportunity – will emerge from this crisis stronger and better able to find a path forward.

What comes next?

While our research validates that these individual leadership traits are important, those who have them are keenly aware that for transformation, individuals matter less than the collective. These leaders see themselves as well prepared to build the cross-functional collaboration and engagement required for genuine change.

In the post-pandemic world, it’s even more complex–right now, nothing is guaranteed. So, there is a two-speed transformation going on that puts even more pressure on leaders. They are trying to transition to the immediate needs amid disruption and transform for the future at the same time. One would be hard enough–managing two speeds of change is particularly challenging.

That’s why a modern leadership “A” game matters so much now. We believe these leadership traits will only become more relevant in the challenging times ahead.

If you would like to learn more about how leaders can chart a clear way forward in uncertain times then get in contact today.

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