The leading edge
As the world moves from a hierarchical to collaborative business style, new and more emotional leadership skills are needed, reports Anna Melville-James
More than a year of pandemic uncertainty, and now a transition to hybrid modes of working, means employees are once again looking to leaders to create and communicate the vision that will guide them into the next new normal.
The challenges of the past year have further underlined the need for effective leadership on an individual level, but also within the ecosystems of the businesses we work in. And ICAS professional development partner, Leading Figures, offers aspiring and current leaders in the finance world the skills and tools they need, through specialist programmes in both leadership and development. Coaches Russell Borland and Thomas Chalmers come from finance backgrounds, but insist the principles of effective leadership are the same in any sector and over any delivery platform, whether in-person or virtual.
Central for Borland and Chalmers is the role of emotions, a view that neuroscience increasingly supports. Research shows that information from our senses is first filtered through our limbic system, where an emotion is attached to that input, before being processed by our thinking systems in the neo-cortex. As such, moving emotions from the periphery to the centre of business thought is essential for a world shifting from autocratic to collaborative and inclusive leadership — where the only constant is change.
It has been an important and overdue shift, says Borland: “In the past when people talked about emotions it was a case of being critical; using phrases such as ‘don’t be so emotional’. Management is obviously important, but that focuses on things like coordinating projects and getting the right resources. Leadership, by contrast, is connected to managing people’s emotions, because emotions are affected during change, and about motivating them towards a common vision.”
For any aspiring or experienced leader looking to level up, the message is clear. “What we’re saying to leaders is that we can’t ignore emotions,” he says. “They are a fundamental part of how we operate.”
The foundation for much of the work that Leading Figures does with ICAS members is the behaviours-based leadership framework developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book The Leadership Challenge. Kouzes and Posner asked leaders from across the world a key question: “What do you do as a leader when you’re performing at your personal best?” From the answers, they developed their now-famous “five practices of exemplary leadership” (also the title of their 2000 book): leading by example; inspiring a shared vision; challenging the process; enabling others to act; and encouraging the heart. Within this framework it is possible to explore the roles of authenticity, humility and vulnerability in truly great leadership in a space that is both collaborative and inspirational.
“The core of the programme is the leadership, but the learning environment is where we bring different people together and create the conditions where they can share thoughts and learn together,” says Borland. “We’ll provide different models and research to stimulate conversation, but it is less about personal training and more about personal learning through peer discussions, because the people we’re working with are experts in their technical areas.”
The two programmes cater for different stages in the career lifecycle, with overlap in core competencies of leadership. “What we’ve found is that many aspiring leaders might have the technical skills, but what is really going to take them to the next level? The Aspiring Leaders coaching programme is an opportunity for future leaders to really leverage and build on those technical skills,” says Chalmers.
“On the flip side, you might end up with executive leaders who’ve been promoted because of their technical ability but find leadership challenging because leadership is about relationships. What we’re doing in the Executive coaching programme is helping them to think about leadership in a different way to overcome those challenges. And we also focus more on strategic issues that they might face as experienced leaders in their business or organisation.”
Of course, the past 15 months has provided more strategic challenges than most, testing the mettle and emotional intelligence of many leaders. “For me, leadership is about remembering that people are individuals and the leader’s response should be to get to know what motivates each person,” says Borland.
“Good leaders recognise that we all respond differently to situations and don’t overlay their own thinking about the world on their teams. The role of a leader is to communicate so that people understand what is most likely to happen and negative thinking doesn’t get amplified. Even if they say, ‘Frankly, I don’t know what’s happening, but I’ll tell you as soon as I can’, and they’re open and honest then that really helps people manage their emotions and expectations through change.”
The key to helping leaders to develop and futureproof their careers and businesses, however, lies in the intersection between the expertise of Leading Figures and the motivations and ambitions of the leaders and aspiring leaders themselves.
“In the programmes we talk about a growth mindset, which is the desire to learn and develop, versus a fixed mindset, which is the desire to look smart in front of your peers,” explains Chalmers. “With clients we set up the expectation that to get the most out of the programmes they need to nurture this desire to learn about themselves and to lead themselves.”
In furthering their professional development with the programmes, leaders can gain a greater understanding of how the process of change can affect their team’s emotions, as well as their own ability to disrupt or empower through their own emotional resilience.
“Being aware of your own emotions and how you’re reacting is very important,” says Borland. “We use the analogy of putting your own oxygen on first in a plane emergency in order to be able to help other people.”
Ultimately, leadership is about the “doing” but also the “being”, according to the coaches, and it is a quality that transcends the daily nine-to-five. “You can lead at home and in your community as well as at work,” says Chalmers. “And this isn’t about changing who you are, it is just about modifying your approach to take people with you.
“The message is that leadership is learnable. And through the Aspiring Leaders and Executive coaching programmes we can share some models and thinking approaches that will help you to develop those crucial skills.”
Learn more about and book ICAS leadership coaching programmes.