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The Great Expectations Facing Leaders


In the post-pandemic world, leaders must put their stamp on issues beyond the bottom line

A single leader shows the direction to a large crowd.

Years ago, Canadian management guru Henry Mintzberg was asked to identify the most important quality of great leaders. The notorious iconoclast impishly replied that he had compiled a list of 52 leadership qualities and that he considered all of them the most important. 

Mintzburg may have been poking fun at how people too easily fall for the romance of leadership (one of his 52 qualities was that leaders be tall). But he was spot-on about our tendency to load a lot of expectations on the shoulders of men and women in positions of authority. 

These expectations change with the times. During stable periods marked by high predictability, organizations can be content with a great visionary who is weak on execution, or a reliable taskmaster who isn’t exactly a skilled navigator. But as we stagger through arguably the biggest collective leadership challenge since the end of the Second World War, it’s clear that the expectations we hold of organizational leaders going forward will be much more complicated.

We are entering classic VUCA territory, a prolonged period of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The pandemic has acted as an accelerant for several disruptive developments: digital transformation across industries and sectors; cultural transformation involving how people experience and view their work lives; and business model transformation arising from the need to commit to sustainable, climate-friendly business practices. No organization, neither in the public or private sector nor in legacy or high-growth industries, can afford to overlook how their leaders measure up against these forces.

Expectation: Champion cross-enterprise agility
Challenge: Keeping teams focused on the customer

The pandemic banished any doubts about the value of agile processes and practices. Organizations most committed to agile were able to quickly adjust operations to deal with new customer demand patterns and a clogged supply chain. 

Agile was developed for just such conditions. It was a response to static hierarchical organizations designed for linear planning and high control. Agile is marked by the centrality of customers and empowered and scalable teams that follow rapid decision and learning cycles (that is, failing fast and moving on). What grew out of the software development world has since been applied across enterprises.

Leadership and culture are said to be the great enablers and barriers to agile. For many, agile takes people out of their comfort zone, forcing them into a creative mindset and greater accountability. That puts the expectation on leaders to use a light touch, nudging and supporting people rather than directing. It also means leaders will need to model the learning behaviour at the heart of agile, admitting they don’t always have an answer. Failure isn’t penalized in an agile culture.

Above all, it is up to leaders—both at the top of the org chart and those directing teams—to keep the focus on the customer, says Barry Cross of Smith School of Business. This is what makes agile click; it benefits internal and external customers, of course, but it also gives employees a sense of purpose and a focus for their energies.

Expectation: Deliver on the promise of digital transformation
Challenge: Upgrading leaders’ digital literacy

Digital transformation involves creating new forms of value by harnessing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, 5G wireless, blockchain, three-dimensional printing, among others.

These technologies predate COVID-19 but the pandemic accelerated the pace of application and proved the value of digital enterprises. Firms with the right technology in place could scale their initiatives in weeks to deliver products and services in new ways and to enable remote workforces.

Many of these technologies have the potential to disrupt organizations, so technology leaders are expected to manage the transition and align objectives with business goals. Are they up to the task? Unfortunately, information technology projects have a reputation for hoovering resources and failing more often than not. Part of the blame has been placed on organizational leaders who are not digitally literate enough to understand how to deliver on the IT promise. One survey showed that few workers believed that their leaders were committed to their own digital talent development.

Given the centrality of digital transformation, decision-makers will need to invest time to ensure they are sufficiently informed of the basic workings of emerging technologies and potential applications. Not only will this give them more credibility when talking with technology teams but it will allow them to ask the deeper questions around the timing of roll-out and how value can be captured—rather than focusing on the costs that can be cut.

Expectation: Articulate an organizational purpose and a set of values that resonates
Challenge: Walking the talk and not trying to play to all audiences

Digital transformation has already been disruptive to organizational leaders and workers. During the pandemic, it has enabled the swift pivot to remote and hybrid working arrangements, giving employers and employees greater flexibility, but at the cost of disrupted communication, reduced role clarity and growing mistrust.

The past two years have been like one big reality check for workers, causing many to re-assess whether to stay put or move on to organizations more in tune with their values. People management leaders may think they understand what’s driving the Great Resignation, but evidence so far suggests they may not. When researchers at McKinsey surveyed employers on what they thought was causing their workers to quit, employers cited compensation, work–life balance and poor physical and emotional health. When the researchers asked the same of workers, they said they didn’t feel valued by their organizations or their managers or didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work. Employees who classified themselves as non-white or multiracial were more likely than others to say they didn’t feel they belonged.

It is easy enough to conclude that leaders must articulate an organizational purpose and set of values around which people can rally. Leaders must be inclusive and “authentic”. But will they be believable? Will leaders do what Smith’s Julian Barling calls the small things every day to embed a values-based culture in their organization? This is a formidable task in the age of social media, where boundaries between the personal and the private, and between shareholders and stakeholders, have been blurred. Leadership words and deeds are out there for all to see—and to perceive in different ways.

Expectation: Commit to sustainability in all parts of business models
Challenge: Setting stretch goals and being consistent

There is no longer anywhere to hide from the climate crisis. For decades, it was possible to lie in the weeds and hope no one would question the environmental footprint of a business’s operations. The pandemic and the obvious signs of climate change have made sustainability a test of leadership for all types of organizations, not only for energy firms.

It is tempting for leaders to take a conservative approach to sustainability, setting modest and easily achievable targets. They should aim higher. As Jean-Baptiste Litrico of Smith School of Business has argued, sustainability is the new dimension of value across the economy, as quality was for the automotive industry many decades ago. One way to capture that is by leveraging emerging digital technologies such as predictive analytics, machine learning and the Internet of Things to drive sustainable solutions and greener operations. 

In his book New Positive, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman describes “net positive” leaders as willing to make decisions for the long-term benefit of business and society and to take responsibility for all consequences, the positive and negative. These are purpose-driven leaders who operate with empathy and humility. It just so happens that these are the same individuals who passed the test in the COVID crucible.

We’ll be expecting a lot from leaders in the coming years, perhaps unreasonably so. The coronavirus crisis has shown us how modern economies and social systems are so tightly coupled, and what happens when one part of the system falters. Is it fair to expect the people we place in authority to flawlessly anticipate the pressure cracks or opportunities in complex global systems? To do so would be like falling into Henry Mintzburg’s trap of seeing leaders as all-powerful heroes. It would also take agency out of our own hands. It’s been said that leadership is a responsibility of the many rather than a privilege of the few. Our formal leaders are going to need all the help they can get.