For several years now, many management authors have been discussing how the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in which we live requires a new set of leadership skills. The health and financial crisis brought on by covid-19 has greatly amplified this. On the current global stage, it is largely women who are standing out as effective leaders, praised by Forbes and other media publications for their handling of the pandemic. As Nicholas Kristof noted in The New York Times, “It’s not that the leaders who best managed the virus were all women. But those who bungled the response were all men, and mostly a particular type: authoritarian, vainglorious and blustering.”
It is not so much gender that is a differentiator in leadership success during these VUCA times; what is really at play is a fundamental difference in style. Men are demonstrating traditional command-and-control leadership while women are demonstrating collaborative leadership.
What is it about these two very different leadership styles that cause failure or success in turbulent times? Based on our research and more than 25 years as leadership development practitioners, we think it boils down to how power and information are shared.
For many years, the “hero” leaders in industry tended to be strong, forceful, charismatic and authoritarian. This traditional leadership model is often associated with what Carol Dweck labeled a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset believes that we have a certain amount of ability that is fixed and unchangeable, and that people rise to the top because they have the greatest abilities and are the “smartest person in the room.” As a result, the traditional CEO approach is to gather information, analyze the situation or problem using their superior ability, and then direct everyone to carry out their plans.
Yet, with the coronavirus, we are dealing with a novel disease for which no one has clear answers. The pandemic has presented us with both a health crisis and a business/economic crisis that include a large amount of uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. No one person has the necessary knowledge and experience to solve these problems alone — it requires multiple people with different kinds of expertise and the ability to work together to create novel solutions.
1. Assemble a group with diverse expertise and experience.
The collaborative CEO approach is to evaluate a variety of different sources of information and expertise and incorporate other people into the decision-making process. It’s an approach that draws from diverse perspectives, thereby stimulating collective problem-solving. The collaborative CEO can do this because they don’t feel a need to be “the smartest person in the room” who knows all the answers.
In our research with collaborative male leaders, a key characteristic that emerged was their ability to temper their ego. In side-stepping ego, they focus outside of themselves and beyond their self-interests. Because they are not striving to prove themselves and bolster their position of authority, they are able to be vulnerable. By admitting they do not have all the answers, they become more approachable, attracting a network of support.
2. Share power and information liberally.
In a traditional organizational structure, role responsibilities and levels of authority are clearly spelled out. When issues or problems occur, the information is pulled together and referred to the person who has the appropriate authority to make a decision. In crisis conditions, decision-making is often pushed higher up in the organization. But as we have seen during this pandemic, leaders using this model were too slow to act.
Collaborative leaders organize differently. They share power and information with their teams. Information flows easily and doesn’t get hung up in the bottlenecks created by “need-to-know” hierarchies. This information flow breaks away from the paradigm of a linearly controlled process to a matrixed connective process so that things can happen fast and everyone can quickly get on the same page to take action.
With continual dialogue up, down and across the organization, there is a level of coordination in how people’s thinking evolves because they are hearing the same thing at the same time. There is no staccato transmission of information where some people are more in-the-know and have had more time to digest and process what they’ve heard. In addition to accelerating action, the perpetual conversation allows for a constant infusion of new information and ideas from a broad, diverse circle of people and for changing direction when necessary.
This efficiency of information flow and speed to take action is often a challenge in a traditional authoritarian-led structure. People at the ground level who observe a problem can hesitate to raise the issue for fear of telling their senior leaders something they don’t want to hear. As Amy Edmonson points out, employees are often afraid to speak up or ask a question in this kind of culture because they might be punished for their comments or look stupid. If a person makes a mistake, the tendency is to be unwilling to admit it or to look for someone else to blame to avoid the criticism or punishment. This environment generally leads to inaction as subordinates will sit back and wait for instruction rather than take a risk and jump to action.
Further reinforcing this culture of inaction is that leaders in these organizations are often viewed as infallible. When they project an image of being in total command, not showing any mistakes or vulnerability, it sends a message that subordinates should behave the same way. Making a mistake is viewed as an indicator of a person not being smart enough.
3. Empathize, listen and relate.
Collaborative leaders create a culture of trust where people will speak up, share ideas and not be muted by fear. They build connections with and among people at a personal level by tapping into our shared humanity. They create common ground that diminishes hierarchical differences and values inclusiveness and empathy, which helps people feel more secure during crisis and change. Collaborative leaders ask questions, listen and respect all. And in doing so, they communicate “I care, I’m interested and I understand.” They establish a sense of community and belonging.
During times of change and turbulence, in stark view during the pandemic, it is collaborative leaders who are the most effective. Foundationally, they leave ego out of the proceedings and thereby can reach out for help. They utilize and involve people who have relevant expertise in analyzing the issues and making a decision. They connect with people on a personal level, they connect others and they are inclusive, offsetting the isolating feelings associated with losing our familiar world and venturing into the great unknown future. Their openness engenders trust and a sense of security in those they lead. As a result, collaborative leaders are successfully navigating the turbulence of the pandemic by quickly assessing the situation, acting promptly and decisively, adapting as circumstances continue to develop, and gaining the respect and cooperation of their people.