Look up Leadership Development today and you’ll see pages of offerings; there are more courses and programs out there than ever before. Yet according to HBR, “Several large-scale industry studies, along with our own in-depth interviews with clients, indicate that more than 50% of senior leaders believe that their talent development efforts don’t adequately build critical skills and organizational capabilities.” (HBR, 2019/03). Companies realize that in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, the leadership skills that are needed are different from what has been needed in the past. Traditionally, leadership development has focused on training skills such as financial management, strategic planning, performance management and cognitive skills. However, frequently a gap appears in the interpersonal skills – empathy, compassion, communication, emotional intelligence. These so-called ‘soft skills’ are the skills essential to thriving in our increasingly collaborative, networked, workforce.
Empathy as a top Leadership skill
In fact, as recently as last September 2021, Forbes published an article about empathy being the number one skill for leaders currently: “You always knew demonstrating empathy is positive for people, but new research demonstrates its importance for everything from innovation to retention. Great leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.” (Forbes, 2021/09/09). The wellbeing and in particular, mental health, of the workforce, has been greatly impacted by the pandemic of the last two years. People are struggling with stress and burnout, challenged by the constantly changing work arrangements, and suffering after illness and bereavement. Empathy is needed in spades to contribute to positive experiences for people going through a hard time.
There was a time, not so long ago, that you could have a ‘job for life’. You learned on the job and got promoted for years of service. If you were technically good at your job, you were promoted to manager. Many older organizations are bursting at the seams with layers of management who are skilled at the technical aspects of their job, experts in their subject matter; but not necessarily ever cut out to be leaders. The world is changing fast. For companies to survive, they need leaders with the right skills to lead others through the uncertainty, the constant change, and the stress; to the shared vision of the future and the people they serve. We need leaders who unite; rather than divide. We need leaders of diversity. Simply put, we need people who can inspire and lead other people, even though the most challenging times.
To me, this means we need to focus on developing the person as a leader. We need to focus on recognising and drawing out the person’s individual strengths and support them to develop their potential. Start from the inside-out, work and develop the strengths, talents and characteristics that are already there – and in time that person grows and helps others to do the same; thus becoming a leader of people. It is not just our companies and organizations which are in dire need of positive, authentic, leadership: our world needs it, in every aspect.
The Importance of Personal Development
Until you understand yourself, how you work, your strengths, your natural leanings…you’ll feel somehow not good enough or like something is missing. An imposter. Once you get to know and understand yourself better, you can grow in authentic confidence. Before we can learn to accept and love ourselves, we must first get to know ourselves. Why would you be the last person you get to know?! Think of all the relationships you’ve invested time and energy in: the romances long gone; the colleagues you took time to get to know; the networking you’ve done for your business or career. Now think about how much time you’ve invested in getting to know and understand yourself. Is there an imbalance? How much time do you spend reflecting, journaling, meditating… speaking to a therapist or coach, getting 360 feedback, investing in personal development?
If we are to move towards being the change we want to see in the world, we must begin with ourselves. Turn the focus inwards, build self-awareness, improve communication and expression, develop and grow interpersonal relationships. This is the development of emotional intelligence. It is through this committed personal development that we best develop professionally as leaders.