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Levelling Leadership

What we define as ‘Leadership’ is a skill that constantly changes through time. While constants remain, what was once seen as ‘good leadership’ two hundred years ago is unlikely to remain the same today. At Inclusive Boards we have been thinking about how leadership may change as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Here we try to forecast the potential successes and challenges.

For much of recent Western history, leadership has triumphed as a predominantly male skill (with some notable exceptions). This leadership style was founded on a hard-power style of hierarchical control, deference and discipline. A male individual would be expected to weigh up the risks of a decision and implement it with sole responsibility.

The current situation could be expected to place strain on this somewhat inflexible leadership model. As the World Economic Forum suggests, more relational leadership, which women are more practiced in, could become a more efficient model. Relational leadership rests upon empathetic values; the ability to listen, be reflexive and democratic with the whole team. Judy Rosener highlighted this in her groundbreaking 1990 article on the value traits of female leaders.

“With the workforce not in the workplace, leadership needs to foresee the inevitable social adaptations that will come with that.”

This could necessitate a move toward more soft power measures, where a nuanced understanding of people’s complex home lives will be required in an era where more of us are working from home and juggling care responsibilities. With the workforce not in the workplace, leadership needs to foresee the inevitable social adaptations that will come with that. A purely transactional leadership style where targets are set and measured within organisational boundaries may become more difficult when our working lives are now practiced outside of them.

A report by KPMG last year suggested that women feel more pressured to change their leadership style to enter the executive level. Female respondents in this research felt that they could not get away with the same assertive leadership styles as men without coming across as overly bossy and unpleasant. On the flip side, men were viewed as being encouraged to behave in this way to appear competent and in control.

Of course, this is just one forecast of how leadership could develop in these extraordinary circumstances. It could be just as possible that the fracturing of the workplace geographically could encourage even further individualistic and performance-driven leadership styles.

Forcibly kept out of the skyscrapers and office blocks, much of our working lives have altered. It is not too much to assume that the way we interact with each other could change too. In the ever-changing skill of effective leadership, the future could hold the adoption of a more relational model.

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