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9 Keys to Effective Leadership in 2021

The quality of an organization’s leadership is key to its potential for success. And just as companies and nonprofits scrambled to adjust to the challenges of the year-long pandemic, leaders now face a business world that is permanently changed.

“Through my work and research with teams this year, and through my many interviews with thought leaders, it is abundantly clear that those teams who have been able to thrive more than struggle during this pandemic are those that are being led by leaders who prioritize their people,” Forbes contributor and Waterstone Culture Institute Executive Director Nicole Bendy wrote in January of 2021.

Clinic-ology has found that leadership teams that are flexible in their approach to internal business practices have a greater likelihood of weathering unexpected crises.

For many organizations, the pandemic crisis is no longer a crisis but has left a forever altered workplace. It may no longer be business as usual for them. For these companies, employees now place more weight on health and wellness, a flexible schedule and social responsibility. As leaders face the challenge of balancing business, technology and people in this changed environment, keep in mind these 9 keys to effective leadership in 2021.

1. Build a culture of positivity.

Whether teams worked remotely, in person or in a hybrid model during the pandemic — and some continue to do so — the workplace environment underwent drastic changes. Communication between leadership and teams and within teams themselves was a challenge only partially solved by technology via virtual meeting platforms and internal messaging apps.

At times of change, maintaining a culture of positivity is crucial to keeping morale high. Happy team members lead to greater efficiency, higher productivity and a better bottom line. This means that a leader’s toolbox should prioritize compassion and empathy as much as digital tech tools in setting team expectations. Business leaders may find that in 2021, incorporating ongoing emotional support for employees is a critical part of business success.

2. Act like an entrepreneur.

Always being ready to adapt to change is crucial for companies but it also creates opportunities. Remember the global financial crisis of 2007? Uber, Airbnb and Slack all arose out of that economic downturn.

Established leadership can take a page from the entrepreneur’s book on adapting to a continually changing environment:

  • Identify when and understand why change is taking place.

  • Understand the opportunities the change will offer, internally as well as externally.

  • Learn how and when to act on change by evaluating the current organizational structure, processes and employee feedback.

3. Re-define success.

What did success look like in 2019? And what does it look like in 2021? For many organizations, surviving basically intact through the pandemic spelled success. This highlights how changing the definition of success to align with unexpected crises — whether global, national, or within an organization — is often crucial to survival when disaster strikes.

In addition, skillful leaders learn from one experience and add those new skills and knowledge to their toolbox. While pandemic survival may have meant success for many organizations, leaders can change its definition of success to meet the current business climate. Here, communicating the change to lower management and teams is key.

4. Remember business ethics.

With more businesses starting to recover from the pandemic economy, the push for gains or to continue them may pressure teams to take shortcuts. In turn, this can lead to unethical business practices. However, in many instances unethical behavior isn’t intentional. Rather, it’s often decent people not realizing the nature of their actions. But this doesn’t mean the results are any different. Leaders should be wary of offering team incentives that may lead to too much of a focus on short-term gains by any means necessary.

In addition, organizations should be wary of leadership that openly wields its power in an authoritarian way, as this is often accompanied by a lack of transparency and team members focused on finishing a task at any cost.

5. Use the “triple bottom line” approach.

For many forward-thinking leaders and nonprofits, the triple bottom line approach places equal emphasis on environmental and social outcomes as much as financial profits.

While business resilience and continuity was and still is challenged by supply chain issues, employee wellbeing concerns, shifts in product demand, regulatory and policy changes and more, at the same time consumer and investor priorities have also changed to highlight environmental and social concerns.

So leaders who give equal attention to these three factors should see employees and consumers react positively to the triple bottom line approach.

6. Consider red teaming.

Red teaming is a strategic tool utilized by the U.S. military that is trending in business where leadership prepares the organization for all possible outcomes. Just as military campaigns based on “what if” occurrences with thousands of troops to manage.

Organizations that have a plan for the different forces that can affect business outcomes, whether internal changes, such as a key team member leaving, or external ones, like the pandemic, can better adapt. This means analyzing the potential need for change ahead of time and developing and rehearsing at least two different plans to respond across the entire organization.

Red teaming is the process of comparing possible courses of action to determine the best one under the current circumstances. Here, critical and creative thinking is paramount. So to do this, leaders should take into account:

  • Psychological limitations

  • Biases

  • All stakeholders

  • Market factors

  • Human subjectivity

Red teaming allows an organization to objectively maximize its understanding of known facts that are analyzed to develop contingency plans for the unknowns. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, “There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Just as in the military, red teaming can address the “unknown unknowns.”

7. Create a learning culture.

The research linking learning to business success is compelling, and organizational leaders know that engaged and skilled employees are key. This is true now more than perhaps ever, as employment shifts occur across and within industries of all kinds. Even before the pandemic, millennial employees placed a high value on professional development in the workplace, according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article. So emphasizing and providing pathways to new skills and modes of thinking is one way to retain employees, maintain a high level of productivity, and create innovation.

8. Be open to new tools.

As the world changes, so do business practices. And with changes comes new tools to help organizations adapt to changes. This was apparent in 2020, when much of the nation’s workforce went remote and virtual video conferencing platforms rushed in.

The pandemic isn’t over even though much of life has returned to normalcy in the U.S., and there are concerns over another pandemic surge derailing the momentum of the last few weeks and months. Many employees are still working remotely, and companies are working to bring employees back to the office. During this time of transition and uncertainty, leaders that are willing to try new tools to help accommodate employees, practices and change in general are well-positioned to not only survive but succeed long term.

9. Know your purpose.

Organizations take their cue from leadership, and leadership’s true purpose is to lead. If you are committed to lead with an authentic vision that will motivate employees, your organization will likely move forward even as the world changes around you.

Purpose is more than the end product. It’s knowing why you are doing what you’re doing and what value it brings to the world. Whether a half-millimeter gizmo that makes a complex machine operate, a software program that affects millions, or an eight-seat restaurant, leaders should be able to define to themselves and their employees what their leadership purpose is.

Clinic-ology, like all organizations, had to change and adapt to the changes in the business world. Using these best practices and forward-thinking, we’ve helped organizations become flexible under effective, purposeful leadership.

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