In a world where change is constant, the capacity to forge meaningful connections between leaders and employees will be a critical determinant of success, writes Ben Laker
The intricate bond between leaders and employees has traditionally been the foundation of thriving businesses. Yet, this relationship has become increasingly complex and nuanced in recent years as more companies have adopted a variety of modern leadership styles.
While many organisations still adhere to a top-down hierarchical model where leaders set the agenda and employees follow suit, there are forward-thinking companies that champion a more egalitarian structure, aimed at empowering their workforce and nurturing a collaborative atmosphere. A prime illustration of this progressive shift is Haier, which has pioneered the Rendanheyi model—a highly decentralised, market-focused approach that underscores Haier’s vision of creating a cohesive ecosystem of products and services tailored intelligently to user needs. The insights on this are elaborated in the book, ‘Haier: Organising to Build a Smart Ecosystem Brand’, published last year by INSEAD.
Parallelly, in a Huffington Post article, Saleh Stevens—the CEO of Continental Clinical—suggested there is so much focus on the boss aspect of an employment relationship that the importance of employee social intelligence gets ignored. This view is interesting because of how it emphasises the importance of not only finding leaders who can effectively manage, but also ones that can establish a positive rapport with their employees. In fact, it could be inferred from Stevens’ article that a leader’s ability to build relationships and motivate their team could be just as important (or even more so) than their ability to manage.
The takeaway here is that leadership styles should not be one-size-fits-all. After all, the changing dynamics of leadership in the modern workplace can be likened to a shift in the global tectonic plates—slow-moving yet filled with significant implications. What was once a hierarchical model has now evolved into an intricate web of relationships and roles.
A two-way street: Emotional intelligence
Leaders are no longer seen as merely figureheads; they are coaches, mentors, and partners, concluded research (disclaimer: my own), which considered why the confidence of leaders—when taken to extremes—can transform into hubris, posing a devastating potential not only for their own downfall but also for the collapse of entire organisations. Consequently, leaders must possess not only a deep understanding of their industry but also an acute awareness of human emotions and needs. Emotional intelligence—the ability to recognise and manage emotions in oneself and others—has emerged as a crucial skill (and the antidote to hubris).
This is why the concept of servant leadership has also come to the fore, where leaders put the needs of their teams first, fostering a sense of community, and boosting morale. Many organisations, such as Haier, now seek leaders committed to empathy, active listening, and cultivating a supportive environment, concluded an article published by McKinsey Quarterly.
But, despite the emergence of these progressive leadership models, their implementation has real challenges. Some organisations find it difficult to shake off the traditional top-down approach, while others might fail to balance empowering employees and maintaining organisational discipline, concluded research published by Harvard Business Review.
The diverse cultural landscape of global organisations can further complicate the dynamics. The preferred style of leadership can vary significantly between different cultures, and a one-size-fits-all approach often leads to misunderstandings or even a complete breakdown of relationships. Navigating these complexities requires a flexible and informed approach, open communication, and a willingness to understand the unique needs and values of different individuals and teams.
Communication: The pillar of success
One common thread that runs through the success of any leadership model is effective communication. Clear and open communication fosters a culture of trust and understanding. Leaders must not only articulate their vision but also be open to feedback and insights from their employees.
This two-way communication builds a bridge between the leader and the employees, strengthening the relationship and allowing for a more aligned and cohesive team. Regular check-ins, team meetings, and one-on-one discussions can all contribute to a healthy and dynamic working relationship.
But remember, the relationship between leader and employee is far from static; it is an evolving partnership that reflects the broader changes in our society and economy. As organisations continue to diversify, expand, and adapt to new challenges, so must their approach to leadership.
The shift towards more empathetic, adaptive, and collaborative leadership styles is a positive one, but it comes with its own set of challenges. The future success of any organisation depends on a nuanced understanding of these dynamics and a commitment to fostering strong, positive relationships.
And so, in a world where change is constant, the capacity to forge meaningful connections between leaders and employees will be a critical determinant of success. Those organisations that recognise this, investing in the development of emotionally intelligent leaders and creating an environment that encourages open communication and collaboration, will likely find themselves at the forefront of their industries.
Ben Laker is a leadership professor who undertakes research and delivers keynote speeches on the societal impact of leadership.
This article originally appeared on Forbes and is published with permission.