Leadership as a subject of inquiry and study has always been in sharp focus of management scientists, neurosurgeons/physicians and of course the practitioners. That is those who are already in leadership roles and those who are hoping to be a leader in the future.
In the process of evaluation of leadership types, with unique characteristics, we witnessed the emergence of concepts like servant - leader; authentic leader, spiritual leader, transformative leader, and so many more varieties of leaders.
Historically speaking, the happening of events throws up leaders who are positioned to handle the change accompanied by the event. Sometimes, the skill set is just good enough for the management of a particular event. In peace time, Winston Churchill, the wartime hero of the free world, was cast aside by the people of Britain. It proves that he was good as a leader (Prime Minister) during war. The abilities required to fight the enemy through grit, determination and resolve was delivered through both action and speeches. His war time speeches served as a major morale booster in the most depressing of circumstances and times.
Event driven leadership examples are many in the annals of human history. The recent pandemic, which is fighting and is refusing to be buried, called upon leadership, be it politicians or business leaders, to introduce a shift from the traditional leadership roles, habits and attitudes to a more responsive approach. The requirement was to make a paradigm shift in the processes for management of resources, both human and other, for continued productivity.
Covid-19 unleashed its full fury upon health and care preparedness and upon the international economy - a serious threat through global health crisis and an economic threat with global ramifications.
The global workforce suddenly went into evaluating their current practices of undertaking tasks. The associated risks of the change upon the economic, social and psychological aspects acquired pre-eminence for re visitation of what type of characteristics would be essential to handle the impact of the pandemic.
Pandemic went into demolition of the ages old concept of working from only work stations at the office; it also mauled up the generally accepted timings of work (9am-5pm). The attending benefits of being at the office such as seeking counsel and advice on both personal and professional issues from colleagues, by way of physical interface suddenly disappeared. The work from home (WFH) concept started to take roots. Sharing of ideals, anxieties, issues and challenges at the coffee vending machine corner, became a thing of the past in very quick time.
In the work environment of pre-pandemic days, human interaction facilitated activities relating to motivating and inspiring colleagues, but to do so in an environment with working from home, yielded a new challenge to leaders, managers and supervisors. Distanced socially, new and innovative methods had to be found to deliver clear, coherent and consistent directives to team mates.
Change is inevitably, due to inherent human nature, resisted. We love the manner in which we may have been doing work for several years. The demand to change had to be inspired by the available leadership. Covid-19 offered a chance to all leaders to test in real time their capacities, skills, abilities and talent.
All change needs channeling and harnessing; it has to be guided for it cannot be allowed to avalanche itself upon an organisation or an entity. To manage change requires different skills, beyond the everyday mundane management skills. The element of flexibility and creativity in managing change in skill set is critical.
In the work environment of pre-pandemic days, human interaction facilitated activities relating to motivating and inspiring colleagues, but to do so in an environment with working from home, yielded a new challenge to leaders, managers and supervisors. Distanced socially, new and innovative methods had to be found to deliver clear, coherent and consistent directives to team mates
The intimidating pandemic called upon leadership to alter itself to suit the demands of the situation. Those leaders/managers who persisted and used the humane touch during change were most successful. It is now apparent that cognitive skills and abilities are Sine Qua Non as a leadership trait. The importance of the possession of Cognitive skills and flexibility in a manager appeared predominantly, as a necessity, than ever before. What is cognitive flexibility - it refers to the ability of the human brain to adapt to new, changing or unplanned situations. It is all about the adroit skill of switching from one pattern or thinking to another. This human ability, psychologists explain by way of the simplest example: While driving we change gears / lanes, upon sensing danger of either say a speeding car from behind or the road ahead does not become totally visible. This involuntary thinking processed change and adaptation to a behaviour suiting the circumstance is referred to as cognitive flexibility. The impromptu switching of the brain function to meet the challenge of the then situation is referred to as cognitive creativity or flexibility.
Leaders with a sharp sense of empathy were quick in responding to altered ways of conducting work. The utilisation of cognitive skills like sustained attention, long-term memory or working memory or visual processing are helpful in performing the tasks better. Reasoning and logic based thinking has to be sharpened. A stress free environment helps in developing cognitive skills.
Carl Jung identified the following eight cognitive capacities: valuing, connecting, reasoning, structuring, knowing, ideating, stabilising and experience. Capacities relating to the makeup of the persona like being an introvert/extrovert, sensing, thinking, intuition and feelings impact upon the development and sustainability of the ability and significance of cognitive flexibility of the leaders.
Business does not generally attach any great significance to cognitive faculties. Deducing however from available literature it is accepted that the five cognitive skills like reading; learning; remembering; logical reasoning and paying due attention play a huge role in developing leadership that will be capable in solving issues.
Personally I was holding meeting via video cons in which the participants were in different time zones, ranging from Hong Kong, in the east to Toronto in the west. Being in the centre it was a nightmare to decide the time of the meeting. For the benefit of the colleague in Hong Kong, the colleague in Toronto had to endure punishing time setting. At the peak, during summer time, I was waking up the colleague in Toronto at 2.30am; the poor soul, without any demand, would be formally dressed for the meeting. Lacking empathy, I persisted for at least three such meetings, finally he protested. We then changed the timing, where we made adjustments for the colleagues in the eastern corridor time zones were asked to attend at late hours.
E-leadership as a concept of practical utility is gaining momentum. That it requires a fresh and new set of skills is a given thing. The concept received impetus from the WFH initiatives. Today, with teleworking in a highly flexible environment, has smudged, demarcating lines, of work- life balance.
The boundaries of time, location, type of technology used and the use of data, have undergone radical change. The many challenges E-leadership has to contend with include, keeping productivity, personal management, communications, and the organisational structure.
E-leaders are expected to have an empathetic understanding relating to issues of work- life balance, mental health, impact of lay- offs and of working remotely, in isolation. Almost all industries ranging from services to manufacturing, inclusive of education have adopted teleworking. The new methods of relating between leaders and followers is receiving test in real time.
E-leaders hence have to bring to fore their cognitive skills, in the post-pandemic environment. Amidst the stress, these leaders have to usher in greater productivity, through flexibility of management practices.
– The writer is a senior banker