Transformational leadership: the skills female leaders need to navigate their organisations out of the pandemic

LeadershipElizabeth Stewart, Partner and Head of Executive Assessment & Development at Odgers Berndtson, explores the leadership skillset that is most likely to drive success during the pandemic.

A distinct leadership skills paradigm has emerged during the past year’s global disruption – a winning formula made up of specific behavioural traits and capabilities that are combined with a specific set of actions. Some leaders instinctively exhibit these skills, while others have had to adapt their leadership behaviours. Either way, those leaders that demonstrate this new skillset – increasingly referred to as ‘transformational leadership’ – are far more likely to successfully lead their organisation through any sustained economic disruption.

As disruption gains intensity and momentum, transformational leaders make decisions at pace, find innovative and resourceful solutions to immediate problems, and are outstanding communicators to their teams and to the wider organisation and beyond.  Both female and male transformational leaders are effective in painting a bigger purpose. However, for the latter, articulating that purpose and challenging others to get behind them may come more naturally. Where this is the case (and it isn’t always), female leaders shouldn’t be afraid to draw upon the allies they have. A female leader is unlikely to have attained their position without having ‘sent the elevator back down’ and so should use these relationships to foster support for their agenda.

A core trait of transformational leaders has been their ability to jump into the thick of the detail to address critical issues and then take a step back once they have been resolved so that they can scan the horizon for emerging challenges and unexpected hurdles.

Low ego and high levels of emotional intelligence enabled these leaders to get off the starting blocks at pace. Highly self-aware, they combine being decisive and determined (two traits necessary for making business decisions at pace), with empathy and compassion (both critical in leading people through a very human crisis). Women more naturally lead into decision-making through collaboration so utilising these characteristics to gain followership at the same time will be highly valuable. Male counterparts have a tendency to apply a ‘decision-first’ approach and then work at interacting, engaging and heightening their attentiveness after the event.

Even more distinctive for transformational leaders is their humility. Critical for both men and women, they disregard their past achievements to leave space for very new ideas and diverse thinking. This can often be an advantage for female leaders who are generally more reluctant to use past achievements as a bases upon which to drive themselves forward. In a world where success is delivered through innovation rather than rolling out tried and tested methods, this is a boon.

These leaders are now quickly resetting the organisational agenda. Keeping one foot planted in the present, transformational leaders are stepping boldly into the future, looking for new methods for creating sustainable value and profit. They are empowering teams to explore and innovate while they keep a watch on emerging trends and market convergences.

These leaders do not rest on their laurels and continue to apply analytical rigour and due diligence to their decision making. In an era that has no playbook or template, they will continue to weigh-up every angle, not just the ones they can conceive of, and listen to their inner conscience and the views of others to make informed decisions. This fosters a collaborative and diverse approach to solving business problems – a powerful cultural asset in a world that rewards everyone.

These leaders are building a strong, profitable and self-sustaining core business whilst seeking out new investments and opportunities for growth. They will have repositioned and realigned resources behind the reset organisational strategy and culture and have courageously divested aspects of their business that will not be future-fit for generating profit.

This calibre of leadership is distinctive. On the one hand it requires a thoughtful, empathetic and humble individual, and on the other it requires someone who is entrepreneurial, visionary, decisive and a determined risk taker – characteristics often wrongly perceived as mutually exclusive.

However, even distinctive individual leaders don’t tick every box across this paradigm. The board, for one, can and should be lending its experience and diverse perspectives to challenge and guide the critical decision making of the CEO. And the CEO themselves should have a cohort of trusted lieutenants – directors and heads of departments – who are highly capable and enabled to play their part.

Transformational leaders, irrespective of gender, inevitably unlock the potential in every individual, helping them embrace uncertainty and approach challenges with creativity and enthusiasm. When this becomes embedded in the culture, waves of disruption and change will no longer be a hindrance but become a source of sustainable strength, creativity, and productivity.


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