As we look to 2022 and beyond, how will the best leaders lead?
It’s possible, as we peer into the mists of time, that we’ve never faced a future so filled with uncertainty or possibility. For two years, we’ve been fighting a war with a virus and with ourselves that has brought out our better angels and our worst. Science has been a huge winner and a loser. Technology has come to our aid and kept us apart. People want to be back together and they want to work from home.
But of all the implications of the pandemic, the one that has caught my attention is this: In 2020, 4.4 million new business opened in the U.S., up 24% from the previous year—and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1.4 million business applications were filed in the third quarter of this year alone, a new third-quarter record. The Great Resignation is fast becoming The Great Reorganization.
All of which makes it more complicated and more challenging to be a leader now than at any time in human history.
So, as we wrap the wildest year we’ve ever heard of, I thought it would be helpful to put some context around what just happened, and where we go from here. I host the Fearless Creative Leadership podcast, and I reached out to some of my guests—an eclectic mix that includes a psychiatrist, a producer, a brand creator, a futurist, a digital strategist, a retailer, a fashion editor, and a culture shaper—and asked for their take on four questions: How have we changed? What does that mean for leadership? What does the future of the workplace look like? And, as a consequence of all that, how do leaders need to adapt and evolve to meet, and lead in, the future? (A special episode of the podcast, featuring insights from these leaders, is now available.)
Kerry Sulkowicz, MD is founder and managing principal of Boswell Group, which advises leaders and boards of directors on the psychology of leadership. He also is president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
“One of the things that I’ve learned by becoming a student of pandemics since the onset of this one is that pandemics are catalysts for social change and that can be for better or for worse, often for better.”
I’ve become convinced that any conversation about leadership in 2022 and beyond has to be framed through the lens of social change. Without that context, any decisions you make run the risk of being at best short-lived and at worst disconnected from the feelings and experiences of the people that, for now, work for you.
Faith Popcorn, founder and CEO of BrainReserve—and the original, and (in my opinion) most provocative and prescient futurist out there—is always examining how society is changing. She believes the experiences of the past two years will have lasting impact on our confidence.
“[The pandemic] pulled the rug out from under us . . . Americans are always thinking everything’s going to be all right. This showed us that everything’s not going to be all right. Just when you think everything’s going to be all right, it can get really bad. So, I think that’s shaken the confidence, the childlike confidence, the wonderful childlike confidence, that Americans have.”
So, what does it mean for the business world, when generations of people lose that childlike optimism overnight?
Joanna Coles is CEO of Northern Star Acquisition Company, the former chief content officer for Hearst Magazines, and former editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan. She sits on the boards of Snap and Sonos and advises some of the world’s most influential businesses.
“I think we’re in the middle of a massive shift where work was the center of American life to a recalibration where work is now very important, but it’s balanced much more with regular life. You see this in the way that people are refusing to go back to the office that, in a way, I think has surprised many CEOs who prided themselves on running largely healthy cultures. And I think you’re seeing a whole range of leaders astonished that their staff don’t want to be in the office more and can’t understand it.”
For many people, working remotely comes at the expense of feeling connected to a community.
Jonathan Mildenhall is cofounder and chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. As the former chief marketing officer of Airbnb, he understands the impact of community better than most.
“I think we’ve, for the first time in a generation, had a horrendous collective experience and that has created a real sense of isolation on the one hand, but an incredible craving for human connection on the other. And people are now working remotely, so they’re looking for different ways to find belonging, inclusion, and identity in their lives.”
So, if human beings crave connection and a feeling of belonging and inclusion in their lives, why are so many people so determined to reduce or eliminate their connection to the office? The answer that made sense to me came from an unexpected source.
Vanessa Friedman is fashion director and chief fashion critic at the New York Times.
“I think it is directly related to how we want to show up. You know, clothes, appearance, image, whatever you want to call it, is the first form of communication of identity for every person in pretty much every moment. And so, when we have a situation where people feel free and, in fact, empowered to say who they are in every dimension, then how they dress, how they present themselves, is the first way they do that. And you see it in the kind of increasing erosion of any kind of dress codes.”
The pandemic didn’t cause these changes. It unleashed an enormous, pent-up reservoir of human need to express ourselves as individuals. In many ways, that need has been closeted by 180 years of adherence to a set of working practices that were created to meet the needs of the Industrial Age. In 1860, the world was powered by petroleum, coal and electricity and transported by the internal combustion engine. The rise of factories to meet this new age of machines, concentrated workers into urban areas and it took the power to decide the hours and length of their working day out of the hands of the farm worker and gave it to the factory owner. To maximize efficiency, those hours became standardized into specific windows of the day. Virtually overnight, the worker had gone from working from home according to the natural rhythms of the day to working in someone else’s building at the times they required you to be there.
For all our advancements, in so many critical ways, we have barely moved forward since. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that people are finally breaking free of rules and expectations that have long since outlived their usefulness to anyone, except the factory owner.
What does futurist Faith Popcorn think this means for leadership?
“This is very painful. It really is a new ecology of work. Is it going to be more leadership by committee, by group? You’re only a leader if someone wants to follow you. There’s no forced leadership anymore.”
If you have leadership responsibility as we head into 2022, it’s hard to overstate the depth of the disruption you’re facing. But in any business fueled by creative thinking and innovation, that kind of disruption also brings enormous possibility.
Justin Spooner is cofounder of Unthinkable, a digital strategy and transformation company.
“I genuinely think leaders were surprised about how it was possible to transform and change what seemed like an absolute essence of their business and a way that they work. . . . Our values don’t need to change, but the way in which we deliver those to the world can change incredibly quickly. And, in some cases, quite often we can do better than what we were doing before.”
Change has always arrived with greater inevitability than most leaders are prepared for. Now, the need to meet and embrace that change is the price of entry for leadership, according to adviser Sulkowicz.
“I think it demands a lot emotionally from the leaders themselves. I think never has there been a time when leaders have needed to be more flexible, more tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity than during these times.”
What does all this mean for the workplace? Where will we work, and when and with whom?
Patrick Milling Smith is cofounder of the multi-award-winning production company Smuggler, and he believes the office is critical to unlocking creativity and innovation among groups of talented people.
“There are a lot of companies that don’t think there’s any need to have an office. And, obviously, you can do so much remotely, but without that sense of community, like when we hire people, a little bit like a sports team, you’re looking at the alchemy of the group, and how people will get the most out of each other, and what it’s like as an overall culture. Without letting people spend time together, see what each other is doing or hear what each other is doing, and really learn how to work as team, I think that it’s just disparate pieces, and it all feels a lot more transactional. When it’s all transactional, I think that the creative magic, or the environment you need in order to create, is gone.”
So, how do we rethink what an office is and does? When and why should we get people together in person so that they maximize their energy and their connection to the work? Digital strategist Spooner outlined a way to think about this that’s based on a clear set of principles.
“I really like the idea of small-group get-togethers for longer. . . . So like, let’s do a whole day thinking about that thing in a small group, and there’s absolutely no doubt you get more done like that. And then, let’s have larger groups generally in the digital realm but, weirdly, for much smaller units of time.”
Changing the workforce, changing the workplace, dramatically expanded the possibilities for business. What does all this mean for the future of leadership? How do leaders need to change to meet this moment? Sulkowicz points out that these changes are also dismantling the “command and control” systems that have dominated management since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
“A lot of leaders have this idea that being a leader means having all the answers and not showing vulnerability—and both of those ideas are profoundly wrong. Leaders don’t have all the answers because they can’t. And in fact, it’s an act of humility to acknowledge that one doesn’t have the answers; humble leadership is strong leadership, in my opinion. And, I think, the ability to make oneself vulnerable is an obstacle for some leaders. It goes against their very grain, it goes against their being, to acknowledge that they may be struggling at times too. But, again, I see that as a sign of strength.”
So, we’re using an old understanding of leadership in a modern world. That means that the challenge leaders are facing is to develop leadership practices that reflect the needs—and increasingly, the demands—of our workforces and our society.
Hashem Bajwa led strategy for Apple Retail, working closely with Angela Ahrendts to redefine the Apple retail experience. As a brand strategist and experience designer, he explains how leaders can reframe their own view of leadership in order to establish deeper connections.
“The other part of leadership I’m drawn to right now is empathetic leadership. And relational leadership. Meaning, it’s not enough to just look at our business drivers, we also have to understand what the human drivers are out there. Those are more intangible. From family to fear, how do we lead through that?”
Faith Popcorn offers some practical advice to the hypothetical question posed by Bajwa.
“Listen to your female friends because they will tell you another language to keep your employees happy. A language of leadership, a language of compassion. I think that they’re the greatest source, actually, of what it means to be a great leader.”
Judy Jackson is global head of culture at the creative transformation company WPP, and she encourages leaders to be kind and forgiving of themselves.
“Be comfortable with your strengths. Focus on those strengths, and be comfortable letting people know what you’re good at and tell them what you’re not good at. And I think that’s the gift or message that I would give people. Don’t be afraid to let people know who you are, the good of you and the not so good of you.”
If you’re evolving and developing your leadership successfully, how will you know? Bajwa says the best measurement will be based on the experiences of the people who work for you—and how they feel about working for and with you.
“I would want people to feel like they had a great adventure. And it could be that that’s that. And they are hungry for the next adventure, and it may or may not be with us or with me. But I would want them to feel that we took that year, we tried a lot of new things, we stuck together closely, they were cared for and connected but were on an adventure that was meaningful to them—and to that, that team led to something that was fun and adventurous. The path to whatever we made was interesting.”
The advice to develop your leadership so that it creates stronger connections with the human beings who work for you may be easy to say and hard to do.
This is an unprecedented time in our lives and in human history. What we do with it has never been more up to us. The future lies waiting.
And, as computer scientist Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Charles Day is the founder of The Lookinglass. He coaches the leaders of some of the world’s most innovative and creative businesses.