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Strong Leadership Skills Make All the Difference

By Janice Molloy, senior manager, online learning, at Harvard Business Publishing

Act decisively, think strategically, communicate effectively—these and other capabilities have always been fundamental to leadership. But the disruption caused by the pandemic made clear that these skills aren’t enough. Consider New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who deftly guided her country’s efforts to confront the pandemic head-on. Prime Minister Ardern won praise—and reelection by a landslide—for both her swift and decisive response AND her empathy, honesty, and down-to-earth style. Through her actions and attitude, Ardern earned the confidence of political leaders and citizens alike, with almost 92 percent of respondents expressing their approval for the government-imposed restrictions.

As New Zealand’s most popular leader in a century, no one would begrudge Ms. Ardern if she touted her accomplishments. But in an interview with Newshub, she commented: “It speaks to the work we’ve jointly done. I just happen to have had the humble and privileged opportunity to be leading at this time.” This eagerness to share credit with others is consistent with findings by leadership experts Frances Frei and Anne Morriss that leaders are most likely to succeed in today’s organizational climate by empowering others. 

Invest your leadership capital

Frei and Morris assert that it all begins with trust—“one of the most essential forms of capital a leader has” (“Begin with Trust,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020). And how can a manager gain people’s trust? By being authentic, exercising sound judgment, and expressing empathy—all behaviors that Jacinda Ardern and others like her consistently put into action. 

But trust alone isn’t enough: It’s what you do with that hard-earned asset that makes the biggest difference. Frei and Morriss observe that the most effective leaders set high standards for team members and coach them to stretch to meet those goals. And rather than leveraging the trust they’ve earned to advance their own agendas, these frontrunners ensure that everyone on their team feels included, valued, and safe in taking the kinds of risks that lead to bold new solutions.

Practice true inclusion

Inclusion is easy to talk about—and less easy to achieve. It takes an intentional effort by leaders to recognize, welcome, and reward everyone’s unique voice and contributions. Fortunately, you can start today by improving your team’s meeting practices. 

Why focus on meetings? According to consultants Kathryn Heath and Brenda F. Wensil, “Meetings are still the prime venue to build and foster a fully inclusive culture that engages and equips people to do their very best at work.” (“To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings,” Harvard Business Review, September 6, 2019). Pay particular attention to greeting all participants by name, encouraging dissenting opinions, and actively inviting all voices into the conversation. Prevent any individual from dominating the conversation or talking over others. When you take these and other steps, you’ll begin to truly engage team members, unleash their creative thinking, and enable them—and your organization—to reach their full potential.

Effective leadership starts here

The success of leaders like Jacinda Ardern shows the power of this kind of inclusion and of putting people first, especially when dealing with complex, difficult problems. As she is quoted as saying, “You can be both empathetic and strong.” This combination enables countries and organizations alike not just to survive through crisis, but also to position themselves to thrive into the future.

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