The skills you need to be a sustainable leader

A future leader sitting on a bench outside holding his phone with his briefcase on the side.

What traits do you need to be a ‘sustainable leader’? Alison Watson, Head of the School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, looks at qualities to embrace and develop, and outlines why businesses will need them

Our next generation of leaders are going to be under intense pressure to incorporate sustainable practices into everything they do. They will need to ensure that businesses around the globe are contributing to the social, environmental and economic issues impacting our planet. This article considers the skills that business graduates will need to develop to ensure they can become the sustainable leaders of the future.

Changing consumer demands require adaptation

Brands across a wide variety of sectors and fields are placing a huge focus on sustainability right now – and with good reason. With the effects of climate change becoming ever more prominent and a rising public awareness around the pitfalls of some of the elements of western life we take for granted, such as fast fashion and unnecessary food waste, many consumers are looking to buy goods and services from businesses that operate in ethical and sustainable ways.

In 2021, sustainability has become an issue that is impossible to ignore and businesses, in turn, have become compelled to act. The leaders of today must adapt quickly to meet this consumer demand – their businesses risk being left behind if they are unable to do so. 

Meanwhile, the development of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has driven many businesses to think about how they can incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) goals within their organisations to become cleaner, greener and more ethically minded.

But what about the leaders of tomorrow? How will these changes impact them?

Leadership the world needs

The leaders of tomorrow will be expected to be holistic in their approach and make decisions based on sound moral and ethical principles. They’ll need to empower their teams and be visionaries about the ways in which we can revolutionise business to maximise sustainable and ethical practices. 

Put simply, they must become people who will drive change and help create a better world by addressing the core social, environmental and economic issues affecting our planet.

But what core traits will business graduates of today, and therefore the leaders of tomorrow, need to develop to be successful sustainable leaders?

Long-term-thinking visionaries

In business, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the now – and that’s understandable when you consider the multiple pressures our business leaders are under as part of their everyday roles. CEOs are typically working in fast-paced environments and often don’t have the short-term stability to make sound, long-term decisions on projects which won’t bring about an assured uplift in profits.

The sustainable leaders of tomorrow, however, will need to be able to align those short-term business objectives with longer-term, strategic plans that consider objectives related to economic health, the environment, people and society. 

At their core, sustainable leaders should have a comprehensive worldview which contemplates and understands humanity’s place as part of a global ecosystem. They will need to consider how we can minimise our impact on the world around us and ensure we are responsible stewards of the planet we call home.

Once they’ve identified their longer-term objectives, these individuals will need to be able to lead and influence others. Leaders will need to take others along on their journey in generating a commitment necessary to ensure everyone works towards a common set of objectives and goals.

As individuals with a strong moral compass, sustainable leaders must also focus on making decisions that are rooted in moral and ethical principles. They should also be able to back these decisions to the hilt – being responsible and accountable for the decisions they make and the outcomes that follow them.

Seekers of collaboration

The best sustainable leaders are expert collaborators who seek involvement in networks that can broaden their understanding of the business landscape and the way it impacts our world.

By engaging with other leaders from a range of specialisms and sectors, leaders can broaden their horizons and continually inform their developing worldview. It can help to adjust their perspectives and enable them to build strong, long-lasting relationships with key stakeholders. These networks will also reinforce an understanding of people across various cultures and backgrounds, allowing leaders to become keen advocates of diversity.

At the heart of this, sustainable leaders must have a deep understanding of people. They need to know how to empower and get the best from their teams while having a deep emotional and social intelligence which enables them to gauge the impact of their decisions on the people around them.

Effective educators

By its very nature, being a sustainable leader means embarking on a period of change within an organisation. The best leaders take others along on this journey with them, not only by influencing and inspiring, but also by educating their teams so that they understand the reasons behind the decisions being made.

When it comes to managing their people, sustainable leaders must focus on coaching and mentoring, rather than dishing out commands and giving direct instruction. They should empower their teams to learn for themselves and hone their abilities so that they are able to address core challenges themselves – exploring, learning, and devising actions which can help them to address the common challenges they face.

All of this will help ensure that they develop their business’ culture in line with the objectives they have set out, embedding sustainability within the corporate culture and giving their organisation the best possible chance of supporting the world’s sustainability agenda.

Alison Watson is Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University. Alison has a wealth of experience in business and management having worked for a number of large retailers as an operations and project manager. Her recent research interests focus on inclusion and encouraging wider access to higher education.

The dark side of confidence

A line of eggs, and one egg is daydreaming to be king. This is symbolic to dreaming big, overconfidence and arrogance.

Reining in pride is a crucial part of business education, says Rita Trehan, co-author of Too Proud to Lead

Business Schools are magnets for talented, ambitious people who are used to achieving what they set out to do. Usually, these driven students go on to become emerging leaders in organisations and their hard work is rewarded with success. 

But too much success also presents possible pitfalls. After a string of accomplishments, young leaders may conclude that their successes prove that their decisions are always correct, and that their ideas are always the best. That attitude risks leading them to dismiss the ideas and perspectives of colleagues. The word for this is ‘hubris’, and it is equally dangerous for the person displaying the hubris as it is for those working with them.

The importance of well-functioning teams whose leaders prioritise co-operation, humility and open-mindedness are clearly demonstrated in my work as the head of a consultancy that helps CEOs and their organisations examine their culture. So, too, are the dangers of what happens when overconfidence is left to grow unchecked. Leaders’ overestimation of themselves and underestimation of others result in poorer outcomes and missed opportunities for both the business and the person who succumbed to hubris.

How hubris works and how to fight it

Too often in both corporate leadership and business education, we equate the drive to succeed with the pressure to succeed at all costs. The pressure on executives and students to achieve results can lead them to abandon any attempts to consult and co-operate. The pressure to meet and outperform, be it for a class or an earnings report, leads to short-termism and a relentless pursuit of success at the expense of broader considerations. 

This results in leaders being wrongly admired for their overconfidence, drive and single-mindedness. It rewards autocratic decision-making by CEOs and boards, and the forgoing of consultation and collaboration. In the short term, the results from this approach might look good and indicate that things are working. In the longer term, it is bound to lead to problems. Poor collaboration leads to siloing throughout the organisation, which can lead to the creation of fiefdoms in which data is not shared but wielded for power against ‘competitors’ within the company. It is not a recipe for long-term thriving.

Companies concerned with legacy, long-term survival and staying relevant are broadening their purpose. Profit and shareholder value are no longer sufficiently broad aims — businesses need to develop a purpose- and values-driven vision for the future. 

By doing so, they are democratising their purpose and creating ownership of it throughout the organisation. By adopting a shared vision, instead of a CEO-driven vision, companies will diffuse most of the risks of a skewed, hubristic approach taking root. 

The trend towards ‘purpose’ as the key driver of a business’s vision for the future is a healthy one and involves all relevant stakeholders naturally – the board, employees and suppliers, as well as the customers and communities. 

This broadening of responsibility creates a need for greater transparency and a wider set of obligations, which forces CEOs to adopt a more inclusive approach. In this way, ethical, equitable, environmental and societal values become a part of their decision-making.

Business Schools can take the lead

Hubris, like so many other issues, is easier to prevent than it is to reverse. That makes Business Schools the perfect place to curb overconfidence in the next generations of leaders. Fortunately for educators, teaching this is not an additional curricular goal to add to the heap — it can be integrated into the existing syllabus.

Not unlike other competencies in business education, teaching against hubris needs to include the development of critical-thinking skills and emphasise the values of collaboration, long-term thinking and the practice of welcoming alternative and opposing viewpoints. 

Stopping hubris requires: 

1. Being able to spot the warning signs — lack of collaboration, lack of humility and a lack of understanding (or willingness to understand) regarding the effects of their decisions.

2. Understanding why people fall victim to hubris, and which kinds of environments encourage it and how to avoid them.

3. Examining high-profile examples that illustrate the business consequences of hubris, both at the level of companies — such as WeWork, General Motors, Uber and Deutsche Bank — and at the individual level – among the executives whose overconfidence in their infallibility led to predictable failures that tarnish their otherwise brilliant careers. The lessons of history must be accompanied by education in anti-hubris values and skills to check overconfidence.

Cautionary tales

I doubt many readers would need more than a moment to think of several examples of hubris in business. There are cautionary tales among both individuals and entire companies: They’re blockbuster movies and 600-page biographies, or, in the case of Boeing, the subject of tragic TV news for weeks. 

Educators can use these examples as case studies. In the 2021 book, Too Proud To Lead, my co-authors and I look at four cautionary tales. The We Company, once again rebranded as WeWork, shows us, ironically, how its name was belied by a failure to embrace true openness and collaboration, while its investors’ unquestioning faith in Co-Founder, Adam Neumann, constitutes its own form of a complementary, enabling hubris.

While Neumann was overconfident in his own abilities, and instilled that in his acolytes and investors, the subject of our second case study, General Motors (GM), is overconfidence in the permanence of the status quo. GM’s failure to compete with Japanese automakers in the 1980s and 1990s cost it market share and reputation. After its recovery in the late 2000s, aided by the US taxpayer, GM seems once more to be underestimating a new wave of competition — this time from Tesla and the industry-wide move to electric vehicles.

Travis Kalanick’s Uber, meanwhile, shows how building an arrogant corporate culture infects and undermines the reputation and potential for long-term success of a business founded on a great idea. Kalanick, Uber’s Co-Founder and first CEO, oversaw incredible growth at Uber but there have been multiple accusations of sexual harassment and unethical competitive practices at Uber during his reign. An air of invincibility, from the top down, continues to haunt the company. 

These examples offer an indication of how some leaders – to their own detriment – close themselves off, assume the future will look the same as the present, and believe in their own invincibility. All these failures have their basis in some form of unchecked power, but none to the degree of our fourth case study, Deutsche Bank (Deutsche). 

Deutsche’s expansion in the 1990s led it to becoming the biggest bank in the world, with assets of more than $2 trillion USD. Instead of seeing themselves as stewards of capital, Deutsche’s leaders interpreted this growing pool of wealth as proof that they could launder money and manipulate markets. Its scandals have cost it revenue and reputation; it has since been eclipsed by other lenders in the EU, not to mention US and Chinese banks.

Focusing on a positive vision of leadership 

Hubris is not just a label for the defeated, to be appended to the loser as a badge of chastening. It is also important to discuss the hubris of iconic leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. What is there to be regretted in the careers of the most successfully acquisitive business figures of our time? Doesn’t their influence and wealth prove that their confidence was earned and that any arrogance, however unfortunate, didn’t get in the way of their success? Why shouldn’t students emulate their risk-taking and tenacity? 

In some cases, the backlash against their hubris is in progress: Domination at all costs appears to have put Facebook, Amazon and other tech masters, such as Google, en route to being broken up or otherwise subdued by governments around the world. In other cases, the damage is measured in what could have been: If Amazon was less focused on bending its commercial partners, employees and yes, even its customers to its will, who knows what else the business could achieve? Better pay for workers and better terms for suppliers would cost Amazon money, margin and profit to fix, but probably not enough to wound it or slow it down appreciably. It would also thin the ranks of Amazon boycotters and the desire of its critics to rein it in. 

Hubris, of course, thrives beyond the c-suites of the world’s largest corporations. Being ‘too proud to lead’ can cause the downfall of leaders in organisations of all sizes, as well as the downfall of lower-level managers and business students who have bought into their own early hype. Leaders of organisations you once worked for may come to mind. We do not need to dwell on these examples. Instead, we can focus on a positive vision of what kinds of leadership business education can hold up. Leaders who think through their purpose and align this to a wider purpose for their organisation are broadening their aims and aspirations to be more inclusive, more in touch with the wider world and more in tune with changing trends and sensibilities. These leaders regard this not as a demeaning activity, but an empowering one. With the emphasis on empathy, nurturing relationships, and collaboration, leaders are driven by group focus rather than self-focus, which leaves little opportunity for the self-centred nature of hubris to set in.

Holistically successful leaders do something that I call ‘walking the hubris tightrope’ – they attempt to balance ambition and drive with purpose and service. This art form is more of a process than a destination — avoiding hubris is not a box to be checked off but a value to be imparted. Whether educators choose to teach this will profoundly shape the next generation of business leaders.

Rita Trehan is a business transformation expert and the Founder of consultancy, Dare Worldwide. 
She is also the co-author of
Too Proud to Lead: How Hubris Can Destroy Effective Leadership and What to Do About It (Bloomsbury Business, 2021). 

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: May-July 2021).

What a sixth century BCE philosopher can teach leaders about the fourth industrial revolution

A Chinese statue on top of a temple inspired building in Laozi, China symbolic philosophy of life and leadership

Drawing on his experiences as a consultant during China’s period of explosive growth, the University of Bath School of Management’s Stephen Wyatt considers the capabilities required to thrive in the highly dynamic context of the fourth industrial and the value of a saying commonly attributed to Lao Tzu

I worked in China in its period of explosive growth, from the early 1990s to 2008, when the country went from bicycles, Mao-suits and new cities dusted with sand swept in from deserts, to being the biggest market globally for luxury goods, having the biggest television audience globally for an international polo match (the so-called ‘sport of kings’) and a place where 21 is the average age of a Maserati driver.

Growth of economies in China and Southeast Asia

As a strategy and business consultant, I sought to bridge the gaps between the expectations and operating practices of many major western corporations and also help navigate the opportunities, risks and dynamics of business in China. As China’s economy surged ahead, data was always lacking, there were continual shortages in skills and experience, and regulation lagged far behind, resulting in occasional episodic ‘course-corrections’ that incumbents usually lamented. In the excitement of this bubbling cauldron, huge fortunes were made by those with an impressive ability to make sense of the unfolding changes, who had the decisiveness needed to seize initiatives, and who were able to fluidly reconfigure operations and reposition offerings.

Capabilities were hard to replicate for many western corporations, whose decision makers were far from China and who first needed to first analyse reliable data before deciding. I had been schooled in western business practices so, to help me understand how Chinese business leaders might be thinking, a colleague introduced me to an extract of Chinese philosophy, reputedly from the sixth century BCE and attributed to Lao Tzu (although others have said it was from either Confucius or Xunzi): ‘Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge’. [Lao Tzu is the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism.]

Executives in China and the ‘tiger’ economies of Southeast Asia were immersed in and focused on highly dynamic volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) contexts of business. They knew the weakness of forecasts (predictions). Yet many a corporate system, optimised for more stable market conditions elsewhere, depended on periodic formalised forecasting, budget allocation and decision-making processes. In my work with clients, I started to focus more and more on developing the management and leadership capabilities to thrive in highly dynamic marketspaces, rather than seeking only to resolve tensions and complications due to the different paradigms between headquarters and local operations or joint-venture partners. An executive at the agrichemicals company, Syngenta, once told me: ‘Here we are [in the tiger economies], but Harvard didn’t teach us how to ride tigers!’

The new context of business

Over the past 20 years, the fourth industrial revolution has gathered pace globally. The development and application of new technologies (for example, the Internet of Things, AI, robotics, biotech, nanotech, blockchain, and machine learning) is facilitating significant acceleration of business, making disruptions and highly dynamic VUCA contexts increasingly accepted as the norm. Leading firms are shaping the future as it unfolds, new business models are emerging, sector boundaries are being breached, incumbents are collapsing while unprofitable startups, known as ‘unicorns’, are being valued at more than $1 billion USD.

Strategic decisions have to be made relying on data of the past and present, even though it is recognised as decreasingly representative of the future. Regulators struggle to keep up with new norms of corporate behaviour, leading to inquests (for example, the repeated appearances of Facebook before US Senate Committees), remedial actions (for example, China’s 2021 ruling against ride-share company, DiDi Chuxing) and substantial fines (for example, EU fining Google $5 billion USD for abuse of power with its search engine). The dynamics (pace of evolution, disruption, rate of wealth creation and destruction, scarcity of data for strategic decision making, lagging regulation) that face business leaders in the fourth industrial revolution are reminiscent of the dynamics some faced when China and Southeast Asia were the booming frontiers. So what are the capabilities required to thrive in these contexts?   

Possiblity not probability

The first and perhaps most important difference between traditional approaches to strategic decision making and those required in the accelerated VUCA context of the fourth industrial revolution is to embrace ‘possibility not probability’. We can’t gather and analyse data on the future. However, as Canadian scholar Henry Mintzberg pointed out, it is equally wrong to depend on the precision of a forecast for decision making as it is to not predict a possible future.

My research with executives at corporations that do thrive in the dynamic fourth industrial revolution shows the importance of adopting a compelling vision of the future; the possibility, to set often audacious growth objectives in the pursuit of a societal purpose. This forward-leaning strategic posture establishes the orientation to shape the future. It provides directional guidance for where the organisation is heading, course correcting as the future unfolds, encountering both the expected and unexpected challenges. ‘Possibility not probability’ requires executives to think more broadly than unifying on a singular view of the future – what could the opportunities and threats be? The next step is to then decide on which of these to act and on which to keep a watchful eye, ready to act if they actually manifest. A most useful strategic planning technique in these dynamic marketspaces is ‘scenario planning’, through which ideas for action are both identified and placed into one of four categories: ‘Do it’; ‘Be ready to fast-respond’ (if it unfolds); ‘Create an option’ (i.e. lay the foundations for an alternative initiative, but don’t commit just yet); ‘Have an alternative back-up plan’ (what would we do if our main beliefs about the future are proved wrong).


The second set of capabilities are those required for the corporation to adapt in a timely manner – the ‘what it does’ and ‘how it does it’. This requires: developing a heightened ability to sense the future, and make sense of it, as it unfolds; being attentive to weak (and stronger) signals and early indicators; and being able to determine the ‘so, what could this mean for us?’ In this sense, the ability to quickly formulate and implement new initiatives and responses to unfolding opportunities and threats, combined with the ability to replicate them and scale rapidly, is important.

The third complementary capability in this group is the ability to fluidly reconfigure the resources of the corporation to enhance flexibility and efficiency in support of the adjusting array of initiatives; for example, outsourcing or in-sourcing, changing organisation structure, adjusting or duplicating supply chains, and so on.

Winning the race for talent

The third set of capabilities addresses the constant shortage of skilled and experienced talent. In fast-evolving marketspaces, the talent and skills required for a corporation to thrive tomorrow are constantly evolving, i.e. the idea that ‘what got us here is insufficient to take us there’. Over the five years from 2020 to 2025, the World Economic Forum estimates that more than 97 million people will need to upskill or reskill due to the new technologies and working practices of the fourth industrial revolution.

‘Winning the race for talent’ is more important than ‘winning the war for talent’, as an external pool of talent with relevant skills and experiences simply does not exist. To win the race for talent requires constant investment in training and development, fluidly deploying and redeploying talent to the roles requiring those skills as the roles change, and retaining the wellbeing of that valuable talent within the corporation, through human-centred policies and practices. 

For some executives, the skills that are required to thrive in the highly dynamic context of the fourth industrial revolution may echo skills they first explored in the once-tiger economies of Asia. Others will need to free themselves from the false precision of forecasts, or the comforting – yet constraining – periodic strategic planning processes. They might also do well to reflect that: ‘Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge’ and to instead think about possibility not probability.

Stephen Wyatt is Professor of Strategy and Leadership at University of Bath School of Management, Industrial Associate at the University of Cambridge and author of Management & Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution (Kogan Page, 2020).

The new CEO playbook: five top tips when taking charge

Close up of a black and white chess game focusing on the pawns and the knights is symbolic of planning, strategy, and challenge.

The first months are crucial to a CEO’s tenure, but bold and decisive action designed to leave your mark may not be the best way forward. Marianna Zangrillo and Thomas Keil, co-authors of The Next CEO, present five tips to help new CEOs build the foundation for later success

The long-desired job as CEO finally arrives, after years of hard work and sustained performance. Yet, for many new CEOs, it is actions in the first months that can make or break their chances of success. In this, traditonal advice may not always be the most effective and instead, seemingly counter-intuitive measures may bring a better outcome.

For example, new leaders are often advised to take bold actions during their first 100 days. While this may be the best option when a company faces financial distress, or in the case of an internal CEO appointment, this often increases the risk of failure.

With that in mind, here are five principles for new CEOs to take on board as they seek to take charge of an organisation successfully.

1: Preparing for day one

Successful transition into the role of CEO relies on preparation. New CEOs are well-advised to use any time between the appointment and starting the job for intense preparation. For external CEOs especially, this is a time to get to know stakeholders, the future management team, and the financials of the organisation. However, CEOs appointed from inside the organisations are also well-advised to deepen their understanding of areas/departments they have not previously been actively involved with, as surprises can often surface.

The more prepared the incoming CEO is, the better their actions will be early on. For example, when Olaf Swantee was appointed CEO of UK telecommunications company, EE, he identified a business challenge the organisation was already grappling with before day one. That allowed Swantee to establish his focus on getting things done very soon. Similarly, Vas Narasimhan, the internally appointed CEO of Novartis, used the time between his appointment and day one to engage leaders across all businesses and start defining the strategic agenda that drove his first year at Novartis.

2: Day one: every word counts

You usually get just one opportunity to make a first impression, and this general rule holds true for new CEOs too. When a new CEO is appointed, everybody has expectations and carefully listens to every word the new CEO says. As a result, communications on day one can be a powerful device to set the direction and agenda of the CEO’s tenure and should therefore be carefully planned out and never delegated. However, this is also a moment when a new CEO, especially one hired externally, may still have limited knowledge about the organisation and the directions to be taken. Communication should therefore focus on setting the personal tone and signalling the strategic focus of the CEO.

3: Define your CEO brand

CEOs will always be identified with the themes they promote and with the approach they take in delivering messages and driving their agendas. Initial communication, and initial actions in particular, signal what the CEO stands for and define a CEO brand.

Communication is relevant both for strategic themes such as growth, transformation, or cost focus, and also for personal values such as approachability, communication style, humility or aloofness, arrogance, and inability to take criticism. To establish the CEO brand, actions always speak louder than words. For instance, when Jonathan Lewis joined [the now defunct] UK oil services company, AMEC Foster Wheeler, he not only communicated from the outset a focus on cost but also sent a wider message on what he stood for in terms of acceptable behaviour by refusing the brand-new company car and cutting executive dining and flight privileges. This is very different from the case of another new Fortune 500 CEO who declared a focus on cost at the same time as posting a job ad for a personal hairdresser for the company jet. This story naturally made headlines well beyond the organisation.

4: Listen rather than speak

From day one, the appointed CEO will be looked to for decisions and direction. The first months, however, should be about listening and learning rather than speaking to gain a deeper understanding of all parts of the organisation. To do this, new CEOs must engage with all stakeholders, including customers, partners, suppliers, employees, board members, shareholders, and bankers. The learning process should also be complemented by conversations with staff who are not their direct reports, to ensure that they gain unfiltered information from across the organisation.

5: Controlled action

Finally, while the initial period for any new CEO should be focused on learning and preparing for what is to come, some carefully planned action is advisable. Some may simply be forced on the new CEO by the situation, for instance, when the resignation of a top management team member requires a fast replacement. Other, symbolic actions may also be pursued to establish the CEO brand and signal their strategic agenda. However, any action taken early into a CEO’s tenure should be designed to focus on quick and needed wins and not constrain future options while a new vision and broader strategy are still being formulated.


The initial months may very well be the most important time of a CEO’s tenure. The pressure is on, expectations are high, and there is little room for error. While most CEOs are action-oriented and eager to leave their mark on the organisation, this may be the time to control their reflexes and measure both what is said and done. Instead of making a splash that may backfire rapidly, this is the time to build the foundation for later success.

Marianna Zangrillo is a business angel and investor with experience in companies that include Nokia, Swissport, and Infront Sports.
Thomas Keil is a Professor at the University of Zurich, where he teaches strategy and international management.
Marianna Zangrillo and Thomas Keil are co-authors of The Next CEO: Board and CEO Perspectives for Successful CEO Succession (Routledge, 2021).

How social connections can inform your leadership ability

Here are two female business professionals engaged in a conversation and walking outside down a path.

High-quality social connections aren’t just a predictor of happiness, they can also help people flourish at work and develop their leadership ability, say the authors of Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership

The new currency of the Internet Age and the IoE (internet of everything) is not intellectual capital; it is social capital – the collective value of the people you know and what you will do for each other.

When social connections are strong and numerous, there’s more trust, reciprocity, information flow, collective action, and elevated wellbeing. Having strong social relationships is the best predictor of human happiness, trumping wealth, income and material possessions; and research has shown that those who fail to achieve this most basic need experience loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obesity, and anger.

You need to find ways to get connected to the information, resources and influence you will need to make a difference. In doing so, figure out substantive ways to connect your colleagues with one another and with those outside the boundary of your group or team who are part of other key networks.

The importance of social connections has been dramatically illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. While nearly everyone around the world was ordered to maintain ‘physical distance’, the yearning for social connection increased. People invented all kinds of ways to continue to interact with their fellow human beings. Virtual coffee breaks and cocktail hours popped up immediately after people had to shelter in their homes. Residents stood on their balconies and sang to each other. Friends and family organised drive-by birthday and graduation celebrations. The demand for virtual gathering services nearly broke the internet. There was seemingly no end to the creative ways that people invented to stay connected to each other, even in the worst of the crisis.

Strengthening the bonds of connectedness

The most well-connected individuals are typically those who are involved in activities outside their immediate job function or discipline, and who avoid being too strongly typecast in one field, function, administrative body, or community. Find ways to meet people from a wide range of units, departments, projects, and professions. While specialisation has its benefits, from a leadership perspective you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. If your connections are only in your specialty, you will be less influential than if your connections cross a lot of boundaries. When it comes to social connections, there’s a payoff in mining deep and wide.

Greater connectedness can also be fostered when you and your colleagues have enough confidence in one another’s relationships to ask for help when needed. The impulse to give help when requested has been shown to be a powerful, automatic, and emotional response formed early in life. However, in many situations people underestimate how willing others would be to provide assistance when requested. There is a social cost to saying ‘no’ when someone asks for help. The person can be seen as uncaring, unreasonable, insensitive, and even cruel. Saying ‘yes’, by contrast, is a more positive and rewarding experience, and agreeing to help or cooperate strengthens the bond of connectedness between people. By making someone else happy, the person who has agreed to help also feels good about himself or herself and strengthens the bond of connectedness between them.

Researchers have demonstrated that people underestimate by nearly 50% the likelihood of receiving a positive response when requesting assistance, and this leads to lost opportunities, like prospective friends, colleagues, and clients going uncontacted, and squandering chances to increase connectedness. When you feel a sense of connection with someone else, you are more likely to volunteer your assistance, as is often demonstrated by onlookers who are most predisposed to help emergency victims if they feel they share something with them.

Developing leadership ability through high-quality connections

Feeling connected to the people you are working with enhances feelings of wellbeing and fosters greater commitment to colleagues. Research documents that high-quality connections contribute to people flourishing, resulting in better health, higher cognitive functioning, broader thinking, and stronger resilience. Individuals with high-quality relationships also have a better sense of whom to trust and not trust. They are more open, and they more fully understand themselves and the viewpoints of others.

You can more effectively develop your leadership abilities by connecting to people who can teach you about the skills you would like to acquire and the things you would like to achieve. Find out about their struggles, hardships and mistakes as well as their accomplishments.

Consider connecting with people who are not particularly well known but who nonetheless exhibit deep competence, unswerving dedication, and a good sense of who they are. Most importantly, select people who make you feel good about yourself. After all, the purpose of these relationships is to encourage and inspire you to be your best version of yourself.

Travis Carrigan, a senior engineer, told us that he’s been doing exactly this for years, which has led to some great opportunities and collaborative work. ‘These relationships,’ he says, ‘are phenomenal at helping me become a better leader, listener, and engineer.’

Limitations of virtual connections

What about virtual connections? Aren’t they a good way to foster collaboration and build trust? There is no question that virtual connections are prolific, and in a global economy no organisation could function if people had to fly halfway around the world to exchange information, make decisions, or resolve disputes. Proof of this can be found with the exponential growth in virtual communications during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and that demand has led to the development of new apps and platforms to meet the need. With a large percentage of people working from home and almost all educational institutions’ classes going online, virtual connections became the most frequent way in which people communicated, learned and conducted business.

That said, the stroke of a key, the click of a mouse, or the switch of a video doesn’t get you the same results that an in-person conversation does. In an era that is becoming more and more dependent on virtual connections, there’s a temptation to believe that such connections automatically lead to better relationships and greater trust. Unfortunately, virtual trust is much more difficult to both build and maintain than is trust developed in-person. Even among Gen Z employees, who make up 20% of today’s workforce, 72% indicate they prefer face-to-face communication at work.

Virtual trust, like virtual reality, is still one step removed from the real thing. People are social animals; it is their nature to want to interact face to face. Bits and bytes and pixilated images make for a very fragile social foundation. As handy as virtual tools such as email, voice mail, apps, and texts are for staying in touch, they are no substitute for positive face-to-face interactions.

This is an edited extract from Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority, by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner (Wiley, 2021).

Creating a high-performing hybrid workplace: what should leaders do?

A person is having a remote team meeting on the laptop. The individual is working from home engaging with peers. Next to her laptop sits a small shot of espresso.

Making the shift to a successful hybrid workplace demands a different leadership approach – one that moves away from micromanagement and towards a culture of trust and transparency, says Hult Professor, Vlatka Hlupic

The global economy has been left in a fragile state following lockdown measures, many of which have been prolonged at the time of writing this article, leaving further uncertainty on how businesses will recover. What is certain, however, is that business leaders and organisations must adapt and recalibrate to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world and create high-performing hybrid workplaces.

Instead of a traditional top-down leadership approach based on command and control, hierarchical decision-making and micromanagement; high-performing hybrid workplaces will need a different leadership approach which is more shared and distributed. This type of leadership corresponds to levels four and five of a framework, called ‘The Management Shift’. In this framework, there are five levels of an individual mindset and a corresponding organisational culture at every level. Each level is characterised by specific thinking patterns, behaviour, language used, leadership style and organisational outcomes.

Five levels of overriding mindset and organisational culture

At level one, a dominant mindset is ‘lifeless’; culture is ‘apathetic’, based on fear and employees are isolated and disengaged. At level two, the individual mindset is ‘reluctant’; culture is ‘stagnating’ and people do the minimum they can get away with, just to get paid. There is a blame culture, and employees feel overwhelmed. At level three, the mindset is ‘controlled’ and culture is ‘orderly’. The leadership style is based on traditional command and control, employees are micromanaged, and they do what they are told to do, but they are not purposeful, fully engaged, or passionate for their work.

At level four, the dominant mindset becomes ‘enthusiastic’; culture is ‘collaborative’ and there is a strong teamwork ethos. Collaboration, integrity, purpose, transparency, accountability, and a caring culture are embedded in this level. This is also the level where a ‘Big Shift’ takes place and where highly engaged and inventive performance begins.

At level five, the mindset becomes ‘limitless’; culture is ‘unbounded’ and anything seems to be possible to achieve. This is where great innovations are developed and big problems for humanity are solved. However, this level can only be sustained for a limited time, as employees will ‘burn out’ if they work continually at this pace.

So how do leaders make the ‘Big Shift’ in their leadership styles to ensure their organisations are led in a way that gets the best out of their people in this new hybrid workplace?

Practices and behaviours that leaders should embrace

Leaders should support autonomy and collaboration and encourage experimentation with new ideas. They can influence employees indirectly through empowerment and inspiration, and create the conditions for change, where they delegate responsibilities, not tasks. Delegating tasks is micromanagement. When leaders delegate responsibilities, they show that they trust their employees to do their work well and employees will decide when, where and how they are going to do their work. They will be accountable for the deliverables – this is the key because, during a time of remote working, it is impossible to micromanage and control how and when the work gets done.

Leaders should also decentralise decision-making based on knowledge rather than a formal position in organisational hierarchy. People with the best knowledge, with the best insight into customer’s needs and requirements are best suited to make certain decisions, rather than somebody at the top of the hierarchy who doesn’t interact with customers.

Leaders need to develop cultures based on trust and transparency. This is particularly important for the hybrid world of work. It is vital to give a clear strategic direction for employees and communicate that well. That will create a sense of security and resilience, which will then also support the wellbeing of employees. Leaders also must support reward mechanisms that are based on contribution and meritocracy, especially as they cannot closely control employees that work remotely. They should focus on the results achieved, not on the time spent in the office or time spent at work.

Leaders need to use, and act, on feedback – and that should go both ways. In hybrid workplaces, feedback is even more important, not as a traditional yearly performance review, but rather as a continuous feedback conversation. Leaders should hone and use their social intelligence and emotional intelligence to get, and act on, the clues when something is not right even if employees are not directly sitting with them in the office all the time.

Successful leaders of hybrid workplaces allow some flexibility with procedures, rules and regulations, within reason. Even in heavily regulated and compliant environments, such as financial industry, there are still parts of the business that need to be creative.  Here, leaders can relinquish control and allow employees to take their own initiative, make decisions and pursue some of their own initiatives for the benefit of an organisation, especially when innovation is important part of what organisation does. Without that, no progress and no innovation will emerge.

Leaders that embrace a level four mindset and behave like level four, and occasionally level five leaders, will create the conditions that are conducive to successful, highly productive and engaging hybrid workplaces.

To this end, it is important to allow people to work from home for at least half of the working week. At the same time, leaders should create office environments which entice people to spend some time there, interacting and networking. Human connections often lead to the creation of the best ideas.

Every change starts with one single step that creates ripples. What is one action that you can start implementing from next week to help create a high-performing hybrid workplace?

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is a Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. She is the founder and CEO of the training, coaching and consultancy firm, Management Shift Solutions as well as the author of The Management Shift and Humane Capital.

Only ethical leaders can study power safely

Ethical leaders who value their souls need not fear the study of power. They are, in fact, the only ones who can study it safely, says Douglas Board, author of Elites and Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Business School of City, University of London

The day when resembling Niccolò Machiavelli unnerved me was when I realised that he had written comedy. I’m a Christian who wants to build a moral world; so was he. I’m a senior courtier (an executive coach, previously a headhunter) who has seen power close up, exercised some myself and thought about it a lot; so was he. But comedy was the cherry on the cake [the writer of this article is the author of the campus satire, MBA]. With hindsight, humorists love to see the world through two lenses at once, which is a valuable power skill.

One floor down from the top

Machiavelli’s The Prince (published in 1532) is a survival guide for Renaissance leaders at the top. My latest book, Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul? (2021) opens instead with a survival guide for leaders, managers and professionals who work closely with the top (the C-suite) but aren’t quite there. The book opens with the true story of a fight between the top (a big league CEO) and one of my hidden heroes (an acting COO); this time the acting COO wins.

This difference disguises a similarity. Machiavelli wrote to make the world a better, more moral, place. So he wrote for the individuals – princes in his day – with the power to do that. Elites is written for the prince’s corporate and professional lieutenants for exactly the same reason.

Let’s call them the ‘D-suite’ – one floor down from the top. And ‘D’ is for danger: it’s a dangerous place to earn a living. Knowledge can be dangerous. When Marie Curie investigated radium, she may have had anxious days but there was an innocence to her risk-taking. Terra incognita isn’t planted with warning signs. Her search killed her and, to this day, her notebooks are too radioactive to touch. By contrast, if you or I decide to investigate power, there are warning signs. The biggest of these is silence.

For 18 years, I was a headhunter for the C-suite and the D-suite, working across organisations large and small, blue-chip and entrepreneurial, for-profit and governmental, academic and community-based. I did a doctorate when I finished because I was convinced that there was something true across all this work of which I couldn’t find a trace in articles in Harvard Business Review, let alone books on selecting people. A year into my doctorate the penny dropped: the unspoken word was power.

Ethical leaders’ fear of power is misplaced

Once you notice ‘power’ as a topic, you see all the other warning signs. For example, Machiavelli’s terrible reputation, the saying ‘power corrupts’, or the all-too-prevalent and disgraceful behaviour by the powerful (as shown by the #metoo movement). The result, as Stanford Professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, laments in Power: why some have it and others don’t (2010), is that ethical leaders don’t study power; they value their souls too much. The result of this is that too much of the world managed by a**holes.

But this fear of power is wrong. It’s caught up in a wider mistake about the nature of individuality, especially as understood in the anglophone world. The mistake is to think power is simply resources or techniques for getting more of what you want, regardless of what you want. If you think like that, then power will corrupt and dehumanise you; it will be like radium.

Because to be human is not just to want things (as dogs or economists would have it) – be those things chocolate, designer jeans or freedom. Instead, we have wants about our wants. We wish we wanted certain things and did not want others. This is called ‘ethics’.

How to study power safely

I’m delighted to report that ethical leaders can study power safely. That news means, if we can survive long enough on this planet, a better world is possible. To study and use power safely:

  • Politics and ethics must be taught side by side. No one can be politically competent without critically questioning what we want, why we want it and whether we are happy to want it – which is ethics. Consequently, only ethical leaders can study power safely.
  • Anyone who teaches power should be as transparent as possible about their (probably complex) motivations.
  • Our teacher should show up as a flawed, life-size human being. Without this, we cannot know that they fully understand what being human involves.

Elites weaves together three strands – a close analysis of the C- and D-suite worlds; a searching inquiry into ideas about success (not least my own); and warts and all descriptions of standout incidents from my own journey.

Notice that the three criteria rule out purely scientific studies. Marie Curie studied scientifically and it killed her; the social nature of power is much more complex than the physics of radioactivity. Pfeffer’s book tries to be scientific (presenting neutral laws and techniques) but what saves it is his humanity leaking through. He has a moral objective: he doesn’t want ethical leaders to be exploited as saps.

Also exposed are ‘pornographies of power’, like Robert Greene’s bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power (1998). Greene doubles down on ways for you to get more of whatever you want, whatever your desires may be. Studies like this dehumanise the reader as well as whatever ‘objects’ they try to manipulate.

That ethical leaders can study power safely is news; good news. Even better news is that only ethical leaders can.

Douglas Board is an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Business School (formerly Cass, soon Bayes) of City, University of London. He is the author of Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul? (2021), the product of his years of experience as a headhunter. He is also the author of the campus satire, MBA, and Time of Lies, an exploration of the collapse of democracy.

How to treat your team like a group of talented artists

Leading by example and inspiring others means embodying your company’s vision and its underlying values. Gerald Leonard, author of Workplace Jazz, offers five ways to treat your team like a group of talented artists

Donald Robinson, a Grammy-nominated producer, composer and pianist who worked with Grover Washington Junior – a hugely popular saxophonist often credited as a founder of the smooth jazz genre who collaborated with Bill Withers on Just the Two of Us – called it the ‘burning bus tour’.

Grover’s band was near Denver on its way to the Aspen Jazz Festival. The tour bus was going up and down the mountains. Then one of the brakes started smoking. The band members were sleeping in back while the bus pulled over and the driver ran outside. The band started to stir, hearing the driver hustling around looking for a fire extinguisher. The driver sprayed the tires but they caught on fire. The band, now fully awake, scrambled off the bus.

Turning a bad situation into a good one

It burned down in 10 minutes, just as the sun was rising. By the time the fire department got there, the bus was pretty much gone. Later, some vans arrived to take the band to a retirement home where they waited for transportation to Aspen.

At the retirement home, Grover pulled out his horn and started playing. Then Donald started on an upright piano while the older people were getting up, dancing, and having fun. Grover’s band turned a bad situation into a really good one. The retirement home loved it, and the band loved it.

Leading by example

Finally, the band arrives in Aspen where the air is thin, you have to really control your breathing. Walk a block leaves you winded. Due to the altitude, the concert venue has oxygen tanks on the side of the stage. When you get a little dizzy, you go put the oxygen on, then go back out.

Grover was playing hard, with passion and joy. He’d play, run to the side and grab the oxygen tank, then come back out and play some more. Then more tank. Even though it was difficult, he just kept playing. His stamina and drive was infectious. It kept the whole band energised.

Like Grover, the head of an organisation must lead by example — not only in their vision, but also by demonstrating that vision in action and the underlying values that support the vision.

Five ways to inspire your team

Do you want to inspire your team in the same way that Grover inspired his band? If so, how can you treat your team like a group of talented artists?

1. Provide expert guidance: expert guidance is required when your team seeks growth. They want to be led by someone who has real-world experience as well as strategic and innovative ideas that they have gained from continuous study and working on their craft. Think of going on a safari. Who would you rather have: someone who gives you a brochure or someone who has been there and can show you all the risks, issues and dangers to look out for as well as the beautiful scenery to observe?

2. Share your background and experience with your team: world-class athletes and musicians continuously seek advice from coaches who have a well-rounded background. They find someone who has a lot of coaching experience and who has already worked through and corrected many of the challenges they are facing.

3. Listen, collaborate, and communicate to connect and increase trust: when you are working with an experienced coach, you have someone to collaborate with and bounce ideas off of.  Take advantage of having someone who can help you obtain a different perspective because of their experience and knowledge, which in turn gives you a competitive advantage.

4. Set an example that accelerates the change and performance you want to see: reap the benefits of focusing on things that will make the most significant impact on the change that you are seeking.  By picking a few things to work on you can accelerate the time it takes to achieve your goals.

5. Demonstrate your desire to increase your team’s capacity and capabilities: coaching increases the capacity of the person being coached. It helps them accomplish more and improves their ability to get more done in less time. By having a dedicated professional coach or engaging in peer-to-peer coaching, your team will be able to accomplish more, compared to a team that is not being engaged this way by their manager or leader.

Gerald Leonard is a professional bassist and the CEO at Principles of Execution, (dba Turnberry Premiere) a consulting practice with 20+ years’ experience and past and present clients that include Verizon, Medicare, and Hewlett-Packard (HP). He is the author of Workplace Jazz: How to Improvise and Culture Is The Bass: 7 Steps To Creating High-Performing Teams.

1O lessons every leader can learn from their pets

From resilience to empathy, pets have much to teach their owners and can help people to develop numerous traits that are essential to becoming a successful leader in the 21st century

It is well-known that dogs and other pets bring joy and happiness into our lives but what lessons can business graduates and future leaders learn from their pets?

Lesson 1: resilience and willpower

The path to success is often stormy with huge obstacles that block our way. Often, we are inclined to take the easy way out and simply give up. In contrast, animals don’t give up due to their instinct for survival – even as pets. We should follow their incredible resilience and willpower as this is one of the most important traits of successful leaders.

Lesson 2: positive relationships

Relationships with team and other staff members can make or break a professional career. Owning a pet can enhance our careers and help us climb the corporate ladder. In a 2018 study from Banfield Pet Hospital, 62% of surveyed c-suite executives said that childhood pets had had a positive impact on their ability to build rapport with co-workers and clients; and 79% believed that co-workers with pets were hard workers. When we build great, high-performing teams by having a positive and nurturing relationships with them, the chances of becoming a successful and respected leader increase.

Lesson 3: creativity

Businesses rely not only on leadership and communication skills, but also on creativity. A total of 84% of c-suite executives who grew up with a childhood pet said they were creative in the Banfield Pet Hospital study, and an amazing 77% said they come up with business ideas while walking their dog.

A 2010 paper led by Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychology, meanwhile, found that cat people were 11% more likely to be open than dog people. Openness is a characteristic that is often said to enhance creativity and one secret to business success is to think out of the box, and to innovate and create completely new products or services that appeal to customers.

Lesson 4: conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a key element of success. Gosling’s research concluded that dog people were more conscientious than cat people. However, owning any pet will increase our conscientiousness by around double compared with non-pet owners, according to a 2011 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Dog people tend to be ‘planners’ – and are likely to be more self-disciplined and have a keen sense of duty. Proper planning in business is essential to avoid unexpected project holes that can be detrimental. Self-discipline is the signature mark of a great leader who serves as a role model for his team.

Lesson 5: non-traditional thinking

Cat people were more likely to be more curious than dog people in the Gosling research. Combined with a tendency to be more open than dog people, cat people have qualities needed for non-traditional thinking. Great leaders do not follow traditional thinking, they have new ideas, look at situations from a different angle and amaze their teams with unexpected points of views.

Lesson 6: being more extrovert

It is well-established that extroverts have it easier in their professional lives and experience greater success than introverts. Pet owners are found to be more extroverted than non-pet owners, according to the aforementioned 2011 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a 2019 report from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 51% of participants claimed their pet helps them feel less shy. The Gosling research, meanwhile, found that dog people more extroverted than cat people. Outgoing, enthusiastic and energetic character traits are essential for leaders to express themselves, make deals, convince their customers, and create a formidable team bond.

Lesson 7: communication skills

Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, are of utmost importance for leadership and business

success. The easiest way to learn is to observe our animals. In the Banfield Pet Hospital survey, 92% of surveyed c-suite executives said that they learned to pay attention to nonverbal communication from their pets. Pets understand even the slightest hint of our body language. Understanding non-verbal communication in negotiations and in meetings can provide the clue to a successful outcome, as it helps to estimate the reaction of the counterpart. This helps us to improve and clarify our communication, which helps us to become better negotiators and leaders.

Lesson 8: dealing with rejection

Every successful leader must deal with rejection; the higher he climbs, the more rejection he will experience. The 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study revealed that pet owners deal better with social rejection than people without pets. A 2016 study led by Arcadia University’s Christina Brown, meanwhile, found that momentary feelings of social rejection can be soothed by thinking about a dog, recalling its name, or even simply by having a dog nearby. Therefore, positive thoughts of one’s pet is an immense help towards building a strong shield against rejection. That would explain why so many famous CEOs of big companies are pet lovers.

Lesson 9: dominance

A certain level of dominance is necessary for c-suite executives who get people to carry out their decisions effectively. It has been shown that a preference for dog ownership can elevate a person’s ‘dominance score’ predict a preference for dogs. This might be one reason why the Banfield Pet Hospital survey found that 83% of CEOs and c-suite executives have dogs. No leader can be successful if they are not dominant, but dominance should be used in a positive way to carry out decisions that better the company and team, rather than being used to intimidate team members. 

Lesson 10: empathic leadership

The Banfield Pet Hospital survey also found strong parallels between pet ownership and leadership skills. Some 92% of surveyed c-suite executives attributed pets to having helped them develop the ability to discipline subordinates; and 79% regarded pet ownership as important to developing better organisational skills.

People living with dogs can most easily understand the importance of ‘bio-empathic leadership’, which is the ability to look at things from nature’s point of view. Instead of taking, these leaders give back and help nurture their organisations, as dogs do with their families or packs. This is the kind of leadership we should all strive for. Empathic leaders work towards giving back to their company and not just their own personal success. This kind of leadership regards team members as vital contributors to success and not as interchangeable human resources in an organisational structure and static bureaucracy that doesn’t care about anything beyond its immediate business goals.


Pets can serve as fabulous role models for all leaders and especially for business graduates who are starting out and making their mark in the corporate world. They can help improve both our personal character traits and the leadership skills needed for greater success in our professional lives.

Margit Gabriele Muller is Executive Director and Chief Veterinarian at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital in the United Arab Emirates, and the author of Your Pet, Your Pill. She holds a PhD in veterinary medicine as well as an executive MBA from Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, Scotland.