Leading for change: why we need new models of leadership

Kate Waters leaning against a brick wall

It's time to look beyond the traditional leadership qualities of the past.

Advertising needs a new kind of leadership. For decades, the successful boss – of an ad agency or indeed any organisation – has been stereotyped as an uncompromising, extroverted, ambitious leader, who could galvanise staff and impress clients. Often from a privileged background, these assertive figureheads would use their unstinting confidence, born of an elevated social status, to lead from the front.

But to meet the challenges facing businesses today, more holistic and humane leadership qualities are called for. Organisations need to exude empathy, care and inclusivity. Leaders must genuinely reflect and ask themselves hard questions and never be too sure they know all the answers.

Such qualities are vital if organisations are to start rebuilding the trust of staff and the wider public, something that has been terribly battered in recent years. The 2021 Edelman Trust barometer reveals widespread mistrust of institutions and leaders around the world. The pandemic has thrown major issues, such as climate change, poverty, racism and misinformation, into sharp relief, along with inequalities in healthcare and education.

Trust in the business world has plummeted to its lowest point in almost a decade as the reputation of the corporate world has been tarnished, and revelations about environmental damage, worker exploitation and political and corporate corruption have surfaced. Yet business leaders are increasingly expected to step up and to fill the void left by government, tackling issues, taking a stance and answering not just to employees and shareholders, but to the public.

Leadership traits

Self-confidence and even a bit of aggression still have a role to play in leadership, but these are no longer the only, or even the main, qualities required. The leadership traits needed to address the decline of trust are in stark contrast to the qualities of self-assurance, authority and assertiveness so long associated with leaders.

Leaders need to be empathetic and inclusive, to understand and listen to others and to clearly demonstrate that they are taking action to tackle concerns.

There is a growing expectation for leaders to demonstrate a little – albeit, not too much – vulnerability. No leader is perfect and the great ones own up when they don't have the answers or when they make mistakes. They can share their vulnerability when it matters most. This makes them altogether more human and has the effect of inspiring a lot more confidence. It makes for a refreshing contrast to the bullet-proof confidence of old.

At an agency I used to work at, I asked my then boss if he needed or wanted any further training. He responded that he was "long past the time when he needed to learn anything". That attitude would be unacceptable today. Most of us work in organisations where younger colleagues are considerably more expert in certain areas than those in leadership roles. Good leaders know they will always have a lot to learn and they have to stay curious.

Integrity in leadership is critical but these days that must go beyond personal integrity to corporate integrity. Once a company has outlined its values, it must adhere to them or risk causing lasting reputational damage. Collaboration and a democratic (rather than hierarchal) approach is also critical.

Many female leaders I know display more inclusive leadership traits, but they are not exclusive to women. And, of course, leadership traits such as decisiveness, ambition, focus and confidence – more associated with men – are also demonstrated by female leaders.

Empathy, integrity, vulnerability and humility could be generalised as "female" qualities, but this would be an over-simplification. Leadership is too often tied in with gendered characteristics. If we want to create the best leaders, we need to "de-gender" the traits that define what great leadership looks like.

We need to stop referring to "male" or "female" traits and instead identify what we see as important leadership qualities. This will open the way for more diverse styles of leadership, which are in tune with the needs of our times.

A new breed of leader

If we want to create a new breed of leader, we need to invest in identifying, nurturing and promoting the right talent. With continuing challenges across sectors, some business will be scaling back their investment in mentoring. But sponsorship programmes and mentorship schemes are more critical than ever. To address this, we at WACL are boosting our talent mentoring scheme to offer mroe than 600 hours of mentoring annually. Meanwhile, through our Talent Awards, we will recognise 30 emerging female leaders with training bursaries of up to £3,000 to help them realise their potential.

We'll be looking beyond the traditional leadership qualities of the past to newer skills that are conducive to creating a fair, equitable and sustainable workplace for the future.

There continues to be systemic inequality in the workplace. Vast swathes of the population are unable to advance in their careers, and far too many are prevented from even entering the world of work. Only the most progressive leaders can break down these barriers and bring, fairness, accessibility, inclusivity and true diversity to the business world.

Kate Waters is director of client strategy and planning at ITV and WACL president

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