2020 was one of the most challenging years to be a leader in any context in living memory and as a result, the qualities of a good leader in 2021 have shifted. The complexity of a global pandemic and the resulting economic impacts, the rise of home working and remote teams, and the shift towards purpose and value as crucial differentiators have all been impacted.

Through all of this, there have been enormous opportunities for learning for those with the ability to grasp them. Any form of change comes with a new experience for those involved: adaptations that were likely to take a decade happened within a matter of months or weeks. And we learned.

We learned that merely communicating is no longer enough in a year when specific answers were at times few and far between. Many people have had to learn how to connect with others through understanding their situation. Pushing beyond our collective comfort zones in doing this means sharing updates rather than conclusions, being comfortable asking questions rather than having answers and listening actively.

Empathy has gone from buzz word to the core quality of a good leader in 2021. Following this thought through, leadership is now more than ever about showing you care, not just as a manager but also as a person. Making space to talk about personal lives with your team. Asking people how they are really doing and then actually waiting for the full response.

Another core quality of a good leader in 2021 is the ability to manage their own emotions. The concept and practice of emotional intelligence has been with us for a while now. Over the years, I have coached many people on this skill. Increasing the ability to monitor your own emotions and respond rather than react to others is always useful.

In 2021 we need to move past this. Susan David is a well-known psychologist who suggests that it is no longer enough to be aware of our feelings. Now, we also need to know how to navigate through them and benefit from the experience of doing so. She calls this ability, emotional agility.

As we become more emotionally agile, we can take a view of not just what we intend but also how we need to impact other people to achieve that. When we get this right, intent and impact are the same. So our ability to communicate is more robust (as is our ability to recover when we don’t get it right).

Finally, with the shift in context from 9-5 office-based work to remote working, how and most importantly, when we work is becoming urgent. Burnout is on the rise, with one survey in 2020 reporting that 69% of employees report burnout symptoms while working from home.

The maintenance of a solid day of video conferencing with emails and ‘actual work’ happening around the edges, whilst also trying to maintain family and home life during lockdown conditions is not sustainable. This calls for a shift in how we view remote working. A reassessment of presenteeism. An increase in trust in organisations. A change to a more adult way of working – one that asks people to take responsibility for what they need to deliver, but perhaps relaxes about how and when they achieve it.

Creating and fostering adult environments where trust is the norm is another quality of a good leader in 2021. And to do this at a distance. Achieving this with empathy and a healthy relationship to our own emotions and those of others will help set us up for whatever 2021 has in store for us.

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