Winning Ways: Seven Leadership Lessons From 2021

Every year that passes brings new lessons for leaders. So which events of 2021 inspired the most powerful takeaways? Seven experts share their views: 

January 2021: Biden draws on the power of words

President Joe Biden was inaugurated days after supporters of former president, Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., leading to the deaths of five people. In his inauguration speech, Biden used simple language to refer to the recent tragic events, saying: “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

The principle of using simple language applies as much to writing as it does speaking, according to Chris West, founding partner of tone of voice agency Verbal Identity and author of Strong Language: The Fastest, Smartest, Cheapest Marketing Tool You’re Not UsingHe says: “Elaborate writing smothers communication.”

When writing, West says it’s important to remember that “No one wants a friend with features, everyone wants a friend with benefits. Don’t talk about what you do. Talk about what’s in it for the person listening to you.”

April 2021: The day the data stopped

“When Apple launched iOS 14.5 in April, it forced some major tech organisations to rethink their whole business model,” says Steven van Belleghem, a thought-leader, speaker and author on customer experience. “The major change in this update made it much easier for users to choose that their activity should not be tracked, and millions of people stopped the flow of their data to certain apps.”

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Van Belleghem believes that the big challenge for leaders now is how they can earn – or re-earn – customer trust. “Data ownership is moving back to the user,” he says, “and that requires a shift in thinking to ensure the value you add to the customer’s life outweighs the value you get from their data.”

May 2021: Goldman Sachs calls workers back into the office

As lockdowns eased, most employers and employees accepted variations of ‘hybrid working’, but there were some notable outliers. For example, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon told his staff they needed to return to the office full-time.

“Leadership is about listening to your employees, building a psychological contract that meets the needs of employees and the employer,” comments Professor Sir Cary Cooper, co-author of The Healthy Workforce. “Command and control cultures at work just do not deliver long-term results, and lead to stress-related ill health and lower productivity, and ultimately to higher labor turnover.” 

June 2021: Gareth Southgate takes a stand against racism

 “When Gareth Southgate, manager of the England football team, published an open letter to fans just before Euro 2020, he gave a wonderful example of leadership,” says Lilian Thuram, a former professional footballer who won the World Cup with France in 1998 and is author of White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity.

Southgate’s young team had taken the knee to show their opposition to racism and had been booed by sections of their home support. “In response, Southgate gave a strong defence of his players,” notes Thuram. “A leader listens to his team and protects them from external attacks. If everyone on the team feels protected, they will give the best of themselves.”

July 2021: Emma Raducanu ‘fails’ at Wimbledon

“Emma Raducanu captured the attention of a nation when she emerged as one of the rising stars of world tennis at Wimbledon 2021,” says Hedda Bird, author of The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your people.

When breathing difficulties forced her to withdraw from the tournament in the fourth round, however, it was suggested that she was not mentally strong enough to handle the pressure. Fast forward just two months and Raducanu was standing, with her knee plastered, ready to serve to complete her own ‘fairy tale of New York’. But how did she do it?

Raducanu followed the three behaviours that are correlated with high performance, according to Bird. These are doing the work – putting in the hard yards with training; being persistent and resilient; and learning from experience – she built a new team around her to support her through the journey.

September 2021: Employers hit by The Great Resignation

Over the past few months, the U.S. has been experiencing the so-called Great Resignation. In September, alone, 4.4 million Americans quit. In the UK, nearly 26% of employees are actively looking for new jobs. 

So, why are people leaving? “Because their leaders have failed to engage them emotionally,” suggests Brian Hartzer, a leadership mentor and author of The Leadership Star: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement.

 Hartzer believes it’s time that leaders asked these important questions: “Do employees feel cared about as individual human beings? Do they find meaning in the organization’s purpose, and see how their work contributes to that purpose? Are they clear on what’s expected of them? Do they feel supported and safe? Are their contributions acknowledged in a heartfelt way? Leaders who can answer ‘Yes’ to the above have little to fear from The Great Resignation.”

October 2021: Digital tiara sells for $340,700

Dolce & Gabbana auctioning a digital tiara that didn’t physically exist was a glimpse into the extent to which metaverses –  virtual worlds in which people trade with tokens and digital currencies – have now become a significant commercial reality. “Digital platforms, driven by artificial intelligence and natural language processing, are creating exciting new ways for brands to connect and engage with their customers and fan bases,” says Simon Robinson, CEO of consultancy Holonomics and co-author of Deep Tech and the Amplified Organisation.

He advises leaders to understand how this new era of the digital economy provides an opportunity for organizations “to elevate their brands, and help people to thrive and flourish collectively, solving social and ecological challenges in profoundly new ways”.

November 2021: COP26 shows women must take action on climate

If we are to succeed in our battle against climate change, we need to consider a broad range of approaches and perspectives, including the views of both men and women. The COP26 climate summit was criticized for its lack of diversity among stakeholders, however. 

“Gender diversity on boards is a strong driver of corporate decarbonization,” says Jessica Robinson, founder of insights community Moxie Future and author of Financial Feminism: A Woman’s Guide to Investing for a Sustainable FutureShe points to research into carbon-emitting companies, which shows that diverse boards are more likely to take action on climate. 

 “Time and time again we see female founders building ground-breaking companies, focused on addressing the major climate and sustainability challenges ahead of us,” Robinson adds. “It’s time for venture capital funds to start recognizing this, and to support and fund women who are proactively building climate solutions.”

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