5 leadership trends that will be more important than ever in 2021

The way we lead organisations and manage people was already facing disruption prior to COVID-19. However, the events of 2020 rocked the business world to the point where leaders must adapt if they, their teams and their businesses, are to survive and thrive. 

These are the top five leadership trends that will dominate the business landscape in 2021 and beyond, according to top UQ Business School researchers.

 

#1 Building a positive culture in remote teams

 

Remote working has been a key disruptor for many managers this year, and it’s a trend widely tipped to stay. While remote work has brought a whole new set of leadership challenges, the answer may lie in getting back to basics.

“As leaders, we need to think about how we would communicate in person and understand how that translates via technology,” says Dr Miriam Moeller.

“If you were sitting in a face-to-face meeting and one of your team members wasn’t participating, you would look to their body language for signs that they were disengaged and check in. The same approach should be taken to virtual communication – particularly in a group. If someone isn’t participating, there’s likely a reason, so it’s important to check in with them,” says Miriam.

“Leaders also need to learn how to identify whether cyberbullying is taking place and how to manage inter-personal team conflict in a virtual environment,” according to Associate Professor Remi Ayoko.

“For many leaders, this is a new environment, but a lot of it actually comes back to the idea of setting team expectations. Managers will need to be more armed with compassion and empathy to manage employees who are working from home effectively.

Miriam says that left unchecked, poor online behaviour can lead to cyber-ostracism, whereby a person is excluded from virtual communications, such as group emails or chat. “Whether it is deliberate or unintentional, cyber ostracism can have dire consequences for individuals, teams and organisations,” she explains. 

“There is a very real need to incorporate more ongoing emotional support and this will reshape the way we lead our people in the future,” Remi adds.

Discover 3 ways organisations can increase employee trust during a global pandemic and why emotional intelligence is crucial for leaders during a crisis.

 

#2 Adopting a change mindset

 

It might come as a surprise that half the companies on the 2019 Fortune 500 List were founded during an economic downturn. In fact, many of today’s business unicorns, including Airbnb, Slack and Uber, are children of the Global Financial Crisis.

Dr Frederik von Briel says the secret lies in adopting an entrepreneurial mindset to leverage environmental change and disruption rather than being overrun by it. During his extensive research, he has identified three key steps to do this well:

  1. First, leaders must clearly identify when change is taking place and understand the characteristics of it. For example, while the COVID-19 pandemic has already led to some obvious social and economic changes, Frederik believes its full effect has not yet unfolded. “Additional technological, regulatory, socio-cultural, macroeconomic, or political changes are likely to follow and these will bring opportunities for organisations who are poised to act.”
  2. It’s imperative to understand the type of opportunities change is likely to bring. “Will you be able to do something faster as a result? Will you be able to create something new? Or is it about repurposing something you are already doing, like we have seen this year for example, with distilleries moving into hand sanitiser?” 
  3. Organisations and leaders must understand how and when they should act on change. “This requires you to evaluate whether change will allow you to shape your market offering, your organisation, or the processes you engage in. Once you understand this, you will be able to identify when you actually need to act.”

 

#3 Wellbeing leadership

 

Challenging the traditional view that economic outcomes are the sole indicator of success, this approach puts wellbeing at the centre of leadership to drive performance.

“Wellbeing is a global movement that is being recognised at the top levels of leadership. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, recently indicated that she recognises economy and wellbeing are inextricably linked – you simply can’t have one without the other,” says Dr Lance Newey.

“Wellbeing leadership is an approach to business and society that aims to maximise outcomes across eight components: economic; material; physical; psychological; social; cultural; environmental and spiritual.” He says the key to this approach is getting the balance right – instead of focusing on one or two components, leaders must find a balance across all eight.  

“Of course, an organisation must be financially strong to survive. But wellbeing leaders don’t do this at the expense of the wellbeing of their stakeholders. They concentrate on getting the eight components to work together for better outcomes.”

“COVID-19 taught us that we can’t take wellbeing or business-as-usual for granted. We’ve seen that the forces of nature, whether it be viruses or bushfires, can shut down whole economies. Economies must act in concert with the wellbeing of people, environments and communities,” says Lance.

 

#4 Eradicating ethical blind spots

 

As we emerge from COVID-19, teams may feel more pressure to perform to help businesses recover, which can lead to an increase in unethical behaviour. To alleviate this risk, leaders can proactively look for ethical blind spots and eradicate them.

According to Dr Michael Collins, many unethical behaviours that may seem deliberate are actually unintentional. “The research shows that in many cases, unethical behaviour is the result of people simply failing to recognise the nature of their actions. It’s a deterioration in judgement that can lead to otherwise good people doing bad things, but this doesn’t make them any less harmful,” he explains.  

Michael points to competitive cultures as a common driver. “While bonuses and commissions offer powerful incentives, they can also motivate individuals to focus on short-term goals at the expense of being a team player – discouraging collaboration and encouraging cheating.”

He says organisations should be on the lookout for authoritarian leadership, as it can be a clear warning sign. “When a leader is wielding their power, there is often a lack of transparency and employees tend to be more focused on getting the job done at any cost to avoid negative consequences than on doing the right thing.”

 

#5 The triple bottom line approach

 

The triple bottom line, an approach to business that places equal concern on social and environmental implications as it does on financial ones, has been a growing trend over the past decade.

Recent events from the natural disasters of early 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic have further highlighted the need for businesses to take a more sustainable approach to their operations.

“If we bring the learnings from COVID-19 and the bushfires back to a sustainability context, there is a clear need to build resilience and continuity planning into business-as-usual operations,” says Dr Belinda Wade. “Leaders have been challenged in terms of supply chain security, employee welfare, sudden product demand shifts, financial constraints, policy changes and more. 

“All of these challenges could have equally been caused by a natural disaster, a major resource shortage, or sudden technological disruption. Leaders must examine their organisation for vulnerabilities, and actively build resilience into their operations to mitigate future risk.” 

The recently released Climate of the Nation 2019 report also revealed a growing concern among Australians on environmental issues, and this is being reflected in consumer and investor behaviour. Belinda says that this presents a commercial risk to organisations who don’t take action.

“Leaders who fail to move to a triple bottom line approach risk stepping out of alignment with societal expectations and losing their social licence to operate. Risking their social licence means risking community, employee and investor support; all areas very difficult to repair once they are damaged by careless actions.”

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