The washing machine and the laundry: new perspectives on leadership

If we ever wondered what it would be like to be inside the drum of a washing machine, turned upside down, and over and over, multiple times, spun, and tangled in ways we’ve never before experienced, the last 10 months, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK (and the world), might give us a hint as to what it might feel like.

The same input is going in (including human beings – with all their emotions, behaviours and thinking – and existing structures, the ever-present promise and threat of change, and opportunities for learning) and it’s emerging in new configurations.  These configurations may at first be hard to understand, but at some point they may begin to look like manageable patterns, albeit of a totally new kind.  Everyone, without exception – whatever their age, ethnicity, sector, location, or indeed any other criterion – has had their life and work impacted by COVID in one way or another.  It’s been disorientating, puzzling, unclear, disruptive and very often difficult and stressful.


The new normals

As with any trauma, there’s certainly a sense of life before and life after – and life after will never again be exactly like life before (what many people still refer to as ‘normal’).  I suggest that the only normal is what’s happening today, which is different from yesterday, and is different from tomorrow, which will be yet another kind of normal.


New everything

As the laundry tumbles out of the machine, I have a sense that new structures, new concepts, new perspectives on business and organisations are also tumbling out, perhaps hidden in amongst the laundry, and offering both new configurations and new resolutions.  By implication, this includes the need for creative new perceptions and innovative approaches: the way we did some things in the previous normal may now be outdated and may need revisiting.


What does this mean for leadership?

I’m curious about what will sustain, what will disappear, and what will need renewing or refreshing.  I’m especially curious about what this means for the nature of leadership and the nature of the leadership agenda. The turbulence created by the new order will mean that there are new lenses through which leaders will need to look as they sort their parameters, their strategies and their tactics: yesterday’s weak signals become today’s priorities – wellbeing jumps up the agenda, communication (between people working virtually from home, sometimes with inadequate broadband connections, and family interruptions, and seemingly with increased intensity and sometimes inadequate breaks) becomes a priority, relationships and connections become critical, sustainability – of people and strategies – receives more attention, and processes that wouldn’t have previously received a second thought now require careful thinking through.


What needs attention now?

Leaders might become resourced by revisiting some key concepts, and reflecting on changes they might want to make.


Psychological safety

The current COVID-influenced environment is inherently unsafe.  In addition, for many people business and organisational pressures and demands seem to have intensified, and they feel to many people even harder to satisfy in a climate which is uncertain.  Psychological safety means creating a climate in which people believe that they won’t be punished, criticised, undermined or ignored for bringing new ideas, asking for help, being different in some way (or perceiving themselves as different), questioning how things are done – or indeed what is done – or saying they don’t know on one point or another.   As the pandemic grinds inexorably on, creating psychological safety is emerging as a key leadership behaviour.


Agile leadership

Aiming to know all the answers was inappropriate for leaders before COVID struck, and given the complexity that leaders are dealing with, is even more inappropriate now.  Apart from the fact that it’s impossible for one person to know all the answers, complexity requires a more agile and responsive approach to the constant change – a response which, far from promising or aiming for once-and-for-all answers or solutions, enables and encourages enquiry into what’s actually going on and enables an aware agility and adaptability of response without getting bogged down in rigidity, albeit within the context of agreed organisational parameters.


Compassion for self and others

Recognition of compassion as a leadership quality is gradually gaining ground, supported by scientific research which demonstrates, for example, that allowing for self-compassion can influence increases in personal and organisational achievement (see, for example, ‘Developing self-compassion in leadership development coaching: A practice model and case study analysis’ by Karol M. Wasylyshyn & Frank Masterpasqua in the International Coaching Psychology Review, Volume 13 No. 1 – Spring 2018).

Harvard Business Review of May 15, 2018 featured an article ‘Assessment: Are You a Compassionate Leader?’ by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Jason Beck, in which the authors mention that organisations with more compassionate leaders have better collaboration, lower turnover, and employees who are more trusting, more connected to each other, and more committed to the company.

A 2012 study (Melwani S, Mueller JS, Overbeck JR. 2012. ‘Looking down: the influence of contempt and compassion on emergent leadership categorizations’. J. Appl. Psychol. 97(6):1171-85) demonstrated that people who act compassionately are perceived more strongly as leaders.


Time to look for something new

What leader wouldn’t want benefits such as these?  Might it be time to see the laundry with new eyes?


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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