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Six leadership traits to avoid ‘Swimming Naked’


The Art of Leadership Newsletter

In the midst of an unparalleled environment of uncertainty, there’s one thing that’s certain… How we live and work will never quite be the same as it was before the pandemic. The same can be said about leadership. In the short space of ten months, we’ve seen a significant shift in what really good leadership looks like. In this week’s blog, we share with you a summary of our own empirical research to clearly define the attributes of the leaders who help their people and their organisations to thrive. 


Six leadership traits to avoid ‘Swimming Naked’ 

It is only when the tide goes out that you get to see who is swimming naked.

When the legendary investor Warren Buffet, imparted this gem of wisdom, he was talking about the principle that in a strong economy, it is easy for companies to perform well.  It is only when conditions take a turn for the worse that it becomes clear which ones are truly resilient and which ones are not.

A similar principle is playing out in leadership.

Whether it is reduced revenues or the seismic shifts to ways of working, the impacts of COVID-19 mean leaders can no longer ride the currents of organisational success and certainty.

The tide has gone out.

Since late March, what we have been seeing and hearing across our wide client base is that some leaders have found their feet under these changed conditions, while others have not.

To help understand the characteristics and attributes of the leaders who are leading well, we carried out an extensive and far-reaching global study of successful leadership in the current context.

The study took into account current academic research and some of the best organisational thinking on responding to change and re-imagining the future*.

We have distilled our findings into six overarching ‘Leadership Attributes’, providing a view on why each of these leadership attributes is so important right now:

1. Creates Meaning and Purpose

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Projects an engaging vision for the future.
  • Tells stories that help people make sense of the past and re-imagine the future.
  • Conveys the organisation’s purpose in a way that taps into the desires and values of people.

Why these behaviours are important now:

Having a clear sense of purpose contributes to our well-being and motivation. Studies show that this clarity of purpose also helps us navigate through uncertainty more readily, mitigating the effects of long-term stress.


2. Is Visible and Clear

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Is visible, accessible, and approachable.
  • Conveys a sense of calm and ’bounded optimism’.
  • Communicates prolifically and consistently.
  • Provides role clarity.

Why these behaviours are important now:

During times of uncertainty people tend to rely more heavily on their leaders to feel a sense of confidence and optimism. Communicating often, clearly, and unambiguously is vital to reduce distraction and confusion, dispel rumours and create the focus needed to thrive into the future. Research also shows that role clarity plays a significant part in reducing stress.


3. Cares for the Whole Person

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Demonstrates care and a clear focus on the health and well-being of their employees, helping them build ‘physical’, ‘emotional’, ‘mental’ and ‘spiritual’ capacities.
  • Finds the appropriate balance between ‘results’ and ‘people’.
  • Demonstrates empathy and care for the individual.

Why these behaviours are important now:

COVID-19 is an equaliser, but it doesn’t impact people equally.


4. Fosters Adaptability and Agility

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Develops the adaptability of individuals and teams, through feedback and by encouraging curiosity, flexibility, and agility.
  • Identifies and acts quickly on opportunities that benefit the business.
  • Encourages diverse perspectives from their team and encourages rapid agility to changing environmental pressures.

Why this is important now:

In a rapidly changing environment, the ability to work with ambiguity is crucial for personal and organisational well-being.


5. Inspires Resilience

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Develops own resilience and that of others.
  • Projects calm and manages well under pressure.
  • Acknowledges the stress and anxiety employees may feel, conveying confidence in their people that they can work through problems and be resilient to setbacks.

Why this is important:

Remaining focused in the face of change and uncertainty promotes personal well-being and organisational resilience.


6. Leads a Culture of Innovation

Leadership Behaviours:

  • Cultivates cross group collaboration creating stronger connections across the business.
  • Enables problem solving involving different perspectives and people who may not have interacted previously.
  • Involves more people in solving tough problems, fosters diversity of thought, allows people to try out new ideas and promotes experiences that create different perspectives.

Why this is important:

Helping people interact beyond their immediate teams can be highly motivating. It is also essential. Unrelenting disruption demands innovation at every level of an organisation.


About the Author:
Mehul Joshi is a Senior Partner and Head of SMG’s Leadership Practice. He is a former award-winning BBC journalist and is a regular contributor to the Australian Financial Review on the subject of leadership.

Research study carried out by Dr. Gabrielle Ostrognay, SMG Executive Coach and Leadership Consultant.

*Dr. Ostrognay’s empirical research referenced a number of sources including Barrett Values Centre, The Centre for Creative Leadership, Harvard Business School and Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, Bain and Company , MIT, IBM, Gartner, BCG, Deloitte, Forbes and McCrindle. 

What’s On

NEW | Webinar | Wellbeing in the Workplace: Inspiring Resilience and Wellbeing

Adapting to the continued pace of change and uncertainty as a result of the COVID Pandemic sees us running a marathon. It requires resilience and endurance at every level of leadership to help employees maintain their focus, energy and overall sense of wellbeing, cognisant of the relevant legal obligations.

Co-Hosted with leading law firm, Clyde & Co, please join us for a webinar that will provide insights into the challenges faced by leaders and organisations to manage these twin facets of employee wellbeing.

ONLINE: 22nd October 2020 – 2.00pm AEDT

NEW  | Executive Presence and Impact Workshop with Peter Kingston – ONLINE

With the recent move for many to working from home; presence across the virtual environment has become even more important.

Designed for corporate influencers, this insightful and interactive online workshop delivered across two half-day virtual sessions will help you to enhance your influencing and communication skills.

ONLINE: Thursday 19th & 26th November 9am – 1pm

Executive Presence and Impact Workshop with Peter Kingston – In Person 

Following strict COVID safe guidelines, we will be running our popular Executive Presence and Impact Program in Sydney.

Peter’s ability to engage with his audience and personally encourage participants to step out of their comfort zone and challenge the way they present themselves, makes this a program not-to-be-missed.

SYDNEY: 12th November 2020

Learning Lab Conversations

This Series allows you to connect with both thought leaders and peers to discuss the big ideas and issues in a collaborative and inspiring way. The sessions include facilitated discussion, followed by smaller group breakouts, and conclude with group sharing.

Missed one of the sessions and want to go back to review what was discussed?
Download our past session recordings HERE


Watch our past webinars

Missed a webinar or want to go back for a refresher?

Access all our past webinar recordings, slides and supporting downloads from the past months covering a range of topics from Strategic Leadership, to Communicating in a Virtual World, Leading through Uncertainty, to Innovation and Future-Proofing Leadership.

View our past webinar recordings and see what’s coming up next

What’s Trending in Leadership

Overcoming challenges and adapting to change through Adaptive Leadership 

Ron Heifetz, a Harvard University professor, in his book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers,” described adaptive leadership as a set of strategies and practices you can use to overcome obstacles, accomplish meaningful change, and adapt to challenging and complex environments, just what is required for buisness leaders of today.  


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