Humility and Vulnerability: The New Leadership Mindset
It’s a simple business reality: Change is constant, no matter the project, the sector or the geographic region. And that means leaders are changing, too. Instead of plowing full-steam ahead, they’re listening to their teams—and using those insights to adapt and evolve.
There has been a huge paradigm shift in leadership away from the leader who knows everything—and therefore doesn’t ask for opinions—to the leader who knows they don’t know, knows that they could possibly be missing something, not seeing something, not understanding something. That shift, I think, is huge. It’s the shift of humility and vulnerability.
The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified[r], we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.
This is Projectified[r]. I’m Steve Hendershot.
Leaders have been severely tested over the last couple of years, facing down some huge issues: the pandemic, economic instability, remote work, supply chain disruptions, social unrest. And the list goes on.
Those tough times also illustrate why leadership is so critical. Yet true leaders are a scarce commodity right now, with the percentage of HR professionals who believe they have a strong bench of leadership candidates hitting a decade low, according to talent consultancy DDI. Today we’ll look at some of the leadership strategies that are especially well-suited to the current environment, as well as ways that companies can move past gender and generational stereotypes to create a truly inclusive culture.
We begin in London, where Tim Munden is chief learning officer and head of employee well-being at consumer products giant Unilever.
Companies are always looking for leaders who can draw out the very best versions of their team members. So how can people do that, and how has that formula changed over time?
We’ve known for some years, in research study after research study, that great leadership is situational. What good looks like depends on the context in which you’re leading—the people you’re leading, the timeframes involved, the complexity, all of that kind of thing. Because leadership is situational, as our world and our context evolve, what is expected from leaders is also evolving. Unsurprisingly, there are some things that are the same. There are constants about leadership because we’re leading human beings, but there are some things that are really changing because the environment we’re in is increasingly complex, increasingly disrupted. So, leadership has to respond to that. Leaders need to do some things differently.
What isn’t changing is what fundamentally motivates people, and, of course, all project leadership—team leadership—is about helping to motivate people. And the fact that human beings are purpose-orientated and meaning-orientated, and we want to do things that are worthwhile—that hasn’t changed.
What’s changing? The complexity of the world, the rapidity of change, the unpredictability of change, the paradoxes that are going on around us mean that, actually, the context is more and more challenging. It is less and less easy for leaders to always have the answer and be able to make their expertise the basis of their leadership. Actually, more and more now, project leaders—team leaders—need to be able to create an environment in which teams can find the answer rather than the leader coming up with the answer. Create the environment in which teams can problem solve together rather than the leader solving it.
And in order to create that space, what we’re discovering more and more, if you want a space that is really inclusive so everyone can bring their expertise—if you want the space in which teams can take risks in thinking about completely new answers—you have to have psychological safety. You have to create a space in which people don’t feel unsafe to bring new ideas, to take risks, to experiment and maybe, therefore, to make mistakes. That, I think, is shifting. And what that demands from leaders—this, I think, is the big shift—is that leaders have to be themselves: more vulnerable, more willing to share mistakes, things they’ve tried, experiences they’ve had, than ever before. That willingness to be vulnerable and humble is a shift in leadership, which I think it’s taking people time to get used to.
There’s also a distinction to make between getting a team to rise to a particular moment versus sustained high performance. How do you build a team that can continuously deliver results?
I think there’s a mental model that sometimes people have about leadership, which is that on the one end, there are these very people-orientated leaders. And on the other end of this invisible spectrum, there are very task-orientated leaders. And people think, “Well, I’ve got to choose where on that spectrum I want to be. What’s my leadership style?” That thinking—that there’s a spectrum from people-orientated to task-orientated—is completely bogus. You’ve got to be able to bring this people-orientation: the ability to give people high support, create psychological safety, create an environment in which they can look after their well-being, [so] they are energized, they grow and develop. You’ve got to bring that, and you’ve got to bring—at the same time integrated together—the ability to set priorities, to set the challenge clearly, set the parameters clearly, reinforce expectations regularly, feedback consistently. That’s the high challenge.
We need leaders who can do both. It’s a little bit like imagining yourself sitting down to play the piano. You need to be able to play the whole range of notes—not just the black keys, not just the white keys, [but] all the keys on the piano and lots of scales. That’s how you create sustainable high performance, high support and high challenge. And that’s not as easy to do as it is to say, because it means you need quite a lot of emotional fluidity: this ability to create psychological safety, to create an environment in which people feel cared for and supported; yet, at the same time, really stretching people’s assumptions about what’s possible, really reinforcing our performance expectations. That fluidity, I think, is what the future is. That’s what breeds high performance sustainably.
Let’s flesh that out a little. What does that look like day-to-day on a team where the leader has created this nurturing environment and is laying out the vision, setting expectations and so on?
It’s in the leader’s interactions every day with people. Are you role-modeling every day that you’re there to support and there to also challenge and lift the performance? So, are you building rituals in which the team [is] checking in on the performance goals, that you’re checking that they’re understood? You’re challenging any assumptions about whether they’re achievable or not. But at the same time, as you do that, you’re also checking that the team haven’t got an issue that they can’t resolve for themselves, that you need to step into. You’re checking that they have the resources that they need, assuming they can’t get them for themselves.
So, I think it’s bringing those two things together. So, it’s regular check-ins on performance, but it’s also about regular check-ins on purpose. Is everybody clear on what the vision of the team is? One of the things that we’re finding increasingly is that a key part of this high support environment is making sure that people have a really motivating, stretching purpose for the work that they’re doing.
You mentioned that leaders need to create inclusive environments. Why is that so important?
Inclusion works at every level. From the individual team leader to whole societies and economies, inclusion is good, is right, [and] has benefits. At the individual level, what teams lose when they lose inclusion is the access to other perspectives, other talents, other points of views, which we can, as a team, never afford not to have. We always need everybody’s energy, everybody’s point of view, everyone’s experience. So as a team leader, you lose basically the very thing you’re there to nurture when you lose inclusion. Once we’ve understood that—that inclusion is part of our core responsibility as a leader—then it comes down to, how do you build the habits and practices that enable that?
You need to make everyone feel safe, that their contribution is going to be treated with respect, that whatever happens, they’re going to be treated with respect, and I think that has a lot to do with how we carry ourselves as leaders and how we interact with everybody. It’s about how we share our vulnerability, how we share the mistakes we make—even the mistakes we make about inclusion, when we get it wrong, when we know we’ve let a bias or an experience of our own get in the way. Being open about that helps to build psychological safety. It’s about humility and vulnerability, again, amongst leaders.
I think it’s about making sure you hear all voices and creating processes in teams to make sure you hear all the voices. This is one of the big leadership trends of the current kind of environment is the leader’s ability to hear all the points of view and to manage [that] process in the team so that we get everybody’s point of view heard, everyone’s input. But, do that in a way that’s structured so that the process moves and isn’t just a kind of sea of lots of opinion.
The best companies focus not only on current performance but also look ahead to the future, which means developing the next generation of leaders. How do you approach that process?
I think there’s been quite a significant shift in organizations, actually. Once upon a time, we would focus on a group of leaders as being the key, and you divided the organization into leaders and others. If you’re in a fast-moving, agile environment, then everybody effectively is a leader.
In the world we’re in, where change is so constant, so disruptive, and we know that the more we can empower teams at the frontline to create solutions, the better it is. Structure, hierarchy, all those things are actually getting in the way of organizations and, actually, it’s how people behave and how they collaborate that really counts. In that kind of environment, everyone’s a leader. And I think reframing this to not think just about leaders, but to think about leadership across the organization really helps. Seeing that everyone needs help and support to be the best leader they can be, wherever they are in an organization. Reframing leadership is a start to how you bring more and more people on the leadership journey.
The second thing is about helping to give people everywhere across an organization [a] sense of purpose. That is, what the organization’s purpose [is], giving them clarity on what their individual purpose is because that, again, is the foundation of leadership. Having created an organizational space in which people can feel their impact and their power, actually, as leaders at all levels, I think you’ve got a good foundation.
After that, I agree, it’s about giving people as much responsibility [as] early as possible. It’s about making sure they have coaching support around them. And certainly, in my organization, the thought of how do we develop leaders to take bigger and bigger roles in the future is a constant focus.
So as companies look to develop new leaders, they need to be open to new ways of working—and new expectations. PMI spoke with three leaders about the changing landscape.
First up is Jaspreet Dol, a project manager at DXC Technology in Manila, the Philippines and a 2020 Future 50 leader. Like many millennials, she puts the focus on a project’s purpose—and impact—to drive team engagement.
Everybody on my project, for example, I want them to know why they are doing what [they’re doing]. Because if they know the impact of something that they’re doing and what will be the result—and what are the consequences if things go wrong—they’re likely to be more engaged. Otherwise, if you just blindly give them a project and just ask them to do something, then they are less likely to be that much [more] engaged. So, for me, it is like where people really do think that work is not just a piece of work that you need to do in order to get food on the table, but more about how personally they take it.
As the new guard emerges, more established leaders can help them develop and grow. One example comes from another 2020 Future 50 leader: Geetha Gopal, head of IT infrastructure project delivery and digital transformation at Panasonic in Singapore. For her, it’s about supporting new talent and keeping an open mind.
It’s not just giving opportunities to people but ensuring that they have the right platform or right support structure in place. Everyone makes mistakes. As leaders, I think we have to be more tolerant, handholding them [new talent] in the initial stages. The perspectives they bring to us, the innovation they bring to the table is something that is really worth adjusting to small issues. People tend to do things differently, and if they don’t do [things] the way that we want them to do, we always have to see the end result and the outcome. What’s the deliverable, what’s the outcome—and not the process.
Neeraja Ganesh is also a firm believer in that kind of hands-on mentoring. After leading IT projects for 25 years, she’s now a mentor and consultant at the social start up Aspire For Her in Bengaluru. Her strategy? Empowering team members to become leaders—giving them space to try new things and being ready to provide help as they need it.
One of the things that I have very, very strongly committed to and done is that I would raise leaders from within the team. So, there will be people who wouldn’t know much about leadership, but I have empowered them. I have given them the mandate, kept away from micromanagement until such time that I realize that, “Okay, no, maybe this person needs a little bit more of handholding.” [I’m] always there as support, and mentoring is available, but [I] allowed them to do it their way.
The minute they feel that empowerment, they do deliver. And a few mistakes are all right. I mean, how did we learn? If you ask me my story, I was a meek, timid, shy girl who did not say hi to the person who used to sit next to me. If I have moved from that to where I am today, somebody trusted me, right? So [it’s] very, very important for you to place that trust and kind of watch. How would you grow your own children? If you’re always going to think, “Okay, they’re not ready to ride a cycle or walk yet or take a tram or a bus and go somewhere on their own,” then they’re never, ever going to, right?
Project teams need strong leaders. What does it take? Well, that’s a bit of a moving target. But we do know that modern leadership requires a new mindset—one that is more adaptive, inclusive and collaborative than ever before.
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