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The future of leadership depends on these 4 strategies

Director of experience design Klaus Heesch observes that as leaders chart a path through uncertainty, it’s important to remember the framing of an ecosystem. Any experience or any one person can be connected to others or even groups of others. And it’s a leader’s job to bring them all together.

The future of leadership depends on these 4 strategies
[Photo: ojogabonitoo/iStock]

Leaders need a new playbook for the “next normal.” One approach is to leverage elements of design thinking and agile practices to create an “ecosystem of engagement.” This methodology is extremely useful when trying to solve complex problems like figuring out how, where and what work gets done during an ongoing pandemic. It works because it’s an adaptive process centered on finding human-centric solutions. And it’s inclusive.

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As a team leader, I’ve found nothing is more powerful than giving people a voice and fostering communication and engagement between them. The agile practice of holding a weekly or bi-weekly retrospective (whether remote or in-person) to ask what’s working, what’s not, and what’s missing, is one way to do this. The key is to talk through and categorize all of the responses, together. Then, prioritize and distribute tasks among the team, including where they want their leader to focus on a solution. The team comes together to work, and share joys and grievances, while the leader observes what is a priority for them.

Repeating this ritual on a regular schedule creates accountability. As the leader shows up to report on how they’ve turned input into action, inclusivity is now manifest, the sense of safe space is strengthened, and trust is built over time. In this way, a leader’s skills and experience can be directed towards the easing and/or elimination of suffering due to a lack of empathetic communication, flexibility, and supportive collaboration.

Without it, employees are disengaged and less productive. According to Gallup data: “The percentage of actively disengaged employees is up slightly in the U.S., from 14% in 2020 to 15% through June 2021. Actively disengaged employees report miserable work experiences and are generally poorly managed.” We are already experiencing the Great Resignation as the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that quit rates are at record highs. This not only impacts the workforce, but ripples out to the business, and the world at large. In other words, an entire ecosystem. 

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As leaders chart a path through uncertainty, it’s important to remember the framing of an ecosystem. Any experience or any one person can be connected to others or even groups of others. And it’s a leader’s job to bring them all together.

The regularly scheduled team retro, for instance, can work to also connect seemingly disparate parts of an organization. Gathering partners from other teams, disciplines, and departments can have the same impact on a project. 

Whether you’re a team leader or a career-minded individual contributor, there is a benefit to treating your organization and your role as part of an ecosystem. To create an ecosystem of engagement, there are four tactics leaders should consider.

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Ease up on vision and focus on cultivating perspective

In 2009, Jensen Huang, the cofounder of NVIDIA, addressed a group at Stanford where he said: “Vision matters…But I like to use the word ‘perspective’ because it makes it possible for anyone to have one.” 

Effective leadership is bolstered by an openness to varied perspectives. If “vision” implies singularity or elitism—as Huang suggests—then “perspective” allows for individuality and implies an openness that fosters inclusion. It’s key that leaders aren’t just looking for perspectives from the top-down but inviting them from the bottom up. Listening to individuals across the organization helps to uphold the context for the entire ecosystem.

These concepts apply no matter your role in the organization. Looking across at your peers and understanding their experiences and needs, gives you an opportunity to learn and grow. More importantly, it opens up opportunities for you to be helpful which also expands your reach and influence.

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Know that presence is a gift

How many times have you been in a meeting where everyone is checking email, or scrolling through text messages on their phones? If you were the presenter at that meeting, you’ve no doubt felt the sting of inattention. The impact is multiplied if it’s a one-on-one where inattention feels a lot more like disrespect. 

Aside from the hurt feelings, there’s a real downside to being distracted. The science behind the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking is well-documented. But the concept isn’t new. It goes back as far as 85 BC when Publilius Syrus wrote, “To do two things at once is to do neither.”

There is a simple solution here.

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First, give yourself permission to leave that last meeting, or that growing inbox, behind you for this moment. And give your meeting attendees permission to do the same. Set it as an expectation.

Formalize it by building one minute of presence-building into the start of every meeting agenda. It only takes one minute to allow people to switch gears and reset. Let your meeting attendees know that it is expected that they’ll close their laptops (or if it’s a remote call, that they’ll close their email and turn off notifications for the duration of the meeting). Take that minute to just sit and be silent.

When I’ve taught mindfulness workshops, I like to suggest that we are all familiar with taking a moment of silence to honor someone or something. This is the same, except that here, we take a moment of silence to honor the goodness that each of us will bring to this meeting. Consider it a micro-meditation that requires no effort, no chanting, no prayer. Just simply taking a moment to breathe and to be here for one another. In the now.

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Whether in person or on a Zoom call (with camera either on or off), everyone can set aside personal concerns and truly be present. You, your team—and the business—will benefit from your ability to be present. As noted in the Harvard Business Review, “Research also suggests that there’s a direct correlation between leaders’ mindfulness and the well-being and performance of their people. In other words, the more a leader is present with their people, the better they will perform.”

If the ecosystem is a living organism, then presence and attentiveness are the water that will nourish its growth.

Be prepared for constant change

Since we’re talking about an ecosystem, note that the change doesn’t have to be some overarching, massive shift in direction or mission for the company. A seemingly small change in one part of the business can have a big impact (either positive or negative) on other parts of the ecosystem.

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Perhaps it’s a leadership change, or there’s attrition or even adoption of another technology or process in one part of the organization. It can send ripples of fear across other connected parts of the ecosystem. Will I be next? What happens to my partners over there? Are our rituals and team norms going to change? Are we going to have to use that new system in the future?

When change is planned, help to tell the story and share the perspective on why it is necessary, how it will benefit the larger organization in the long-run, and how each individual can use the change as an opportunity to make a positive impact.

The ever-flowing constancy of change highlights the need for leaders to cultivate a growth mindset. And again,  always stay present. Leaders should continue to listen to their teams throughout whatever changes occur. 

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Understand that the path to success is not a straight line

The ecosystem is a web, and success is found through a series of straight lines in all directions.

American poet Jane Hirshfield wrote a simple haiku that goes: “Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.” But it could also be the guiding principle and key takeaway for leaders—or anyone who simply wants to do and be better. 

While we move through time in a linear fashion and experience whatever is happening in the moment, understanding the interconnectedness of people and experiences is at the heart of resolving issues and staying resilient. And something as seemingly simple as just paying attention can have a positive and lasting impact—not just on you, but also on your colleagues and collaborators. Creating an ecosystem of engagement will allow you to continue to lead yourself and others more effectively through uncertainty and change.

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Klaus Heesch is a director of experience design, speaker, and happiness practitioner.


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