How to lead in the age of self-directedness

Gone are the days of command and control, says Stephen Manley.

The rise in remote working is resulting in a new generation of self-motivated, self-directed employees. So where does the leader fit into the new normal?

Remote working has rapidly emerged as an essential facilitator of business continuity during times of crisis. But it’s achieving much more than what was initially anticipated. Not only is remote working successfully shifting operations from the workplace to the home, it’s also removing many of the traditional notions of organisational leadership.

The rise of remote working

In April 2020, shortly after the announcement of the UK’s first lockdown, the number of people working from home rose to just shy of 50%. To put that into perspective, only 13% were noted as working from home five years prior. Throughout the unusual circumstances of the past year, remote working has clearly provided multiple benefits. But there are challenges, too.

Remote workers can’t look over to the next desk and find motivation in the productivity of others; they can’t turn around and ask a colleague a question, expecting to receive an immediate response; they’re not working in environments that have been specifically designed to promote organisational efficiency.

And yet, in many cases, they’re expected to meet the same goals and targets as they would be in the office.

Not only is remote working successfully shifting operations from the workplace to the home, it’s also removing many of the traditional notions of organisational leadership.

What many are now finding is that they can’t achieve this without making a change; without taking more control over their own processes, behaviours, and actions.

Remote workers are rapidly developing essential self-directed learning skills that enable and empower them to take action even when separated from their team, and from their manager. And this is having some pretty huge consequences on traditional leadership.

The age of self-directedness

The current business situation is creating a new generation of self-directed employees; employees exhibiting greater-than-ever levels of self-determination. They have little other choice.

The rise of the remote working environment means that they must be able to regulate their own actions and behaviours to achieve their goals. There’s a very widespread shift taking place from relying on external motivators to internal drivers.

But what does this mean for leaders? It means that the traditional definition of leadership no longer aligns fully with the current business landscape. Your team still needs a strong leader, but your employees no longer need to be told what to do and even how to do it.


Leading the self-directed workforce

The classic, tried-and-tested method of leading through direction simply isn’t effective when the workforce is already becoming skilled at directing themselves. Modern leadership shouldn’t be about governing or managing, but more about inspiring and guiding. Whilst many have been wanting this for some time, the pandemic has forced the role of the leader to shift.

Today’s workforce is learning what it means to be unsupervised; what it means to have autonomy.

They’re using their initiative to understand what actions they need to take, without having to be told. Leading through direction alone is no longer effective. Instead, leaders should be guiding their teams to success through personalised support, and through building a self-learning culture that extends from the workplace to the home.

The leaders of today – and tomorrow – need to rethink how they generate productivity amongst their teams. In a remote working environment, productivity needs to come from within. And so changes at employee level, rather than business level, must be implemented. These changes can create a culture that prioritises talent development to produce a resilient workforce with the skills required to navigate change effectively.

To achieve this, leaders should be shifting from business-centricity to people-centricity; to a humanistic approach that puts the needs of the workforce above profitability.

Embracing the new 

But is it really worth re-evaluating the role of the leader as the world slowly begins to return to greater levels of normality? Absolutely. Not only does Gartner predict that around 40% of employees will continue to work remotely – at least some of the time – in the post-COVID world, these new self-directed skills also aren’t going anywhere.

The remote workforce has invested time and energy into developing the skill of self-directedness. And even if that skill isn’t directly required as workers return to the office, it’s still there. Leaders shouldn’t try to ignore or mute this skill, but use it, embrace it, and leverage it as a driving force of future growth and development.

Are you ready to adapt?

The good news is that reports are showing that around 50% of leaders are prioritising learning following the global health crisis to ensure they’re able to lead with efficiency and effectiveness in the new normal. But that leaves another 50% of leaders who aren’t.

It’s vital that we help the leaders of the future find their path, working together to develop the vital skills needed to succeed in a very rapidly evolving landscape.


About the author

Stephen Manley is the Coaching Capability Lead for Spitfire Consultancy


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