Why leadership needs reflection and development more than ever before

A succinct summary of current insights plus tangible impetus for management and employees 

Thomas J. Dettling and Daniel Dettling put it in a nutshell in a guest commentary published in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

Most companies have to work much harder and reinvent themselves or risk extinction.”The authors anticipate that digital transformation will accelerate and change markets permanently. “The real obstacles to this transformation have so far been rigid structures, skills gaps and reluctance at management level.” Hence their prognosis: “Resilience beats efficiency.”

What businesses need to successfully master this challenge: targeted development of managers and motivated and creative employees. A 2019 Gallup report highlighted the issues that disengage employees, even before the Covid-19 outbreak:

Employees are engaged when they first start a new job in a company – but then lose faith because of the leadership behaviour they have to contend with every day.

There are two main causes of this: 


  1. The organisation and management naturally want to present themselves in their best light to outsiders and future employees. This can sometimes give an impression that is not always reflected in practice or in the actual or potential reality.
  2. In critical situations people’s attitudes regress. This is more likely to happen when their mindsets are still at an earlier stage.

Here is an overview of our six mindset model depicting the mindsets managers lead with.

The book “Mindset Matters – Shaping leadership and corporate culture for the future” explores the model in detail. Click here to order your free poster depicting the mindsets in different life situations. 

COVID-19 and what corporate leadership can learn from it

In this respect, the Coronavirus pandemic is an example of a trigger for regression. Under these extreme conditions, the organisations that remain most capable of acting are those that have been able to establish a carefully thought out and mature corporate culture. In an interview with Haufe, Bodo Janssen, CEO of Upstalsboom, sums it up like this:

We respond to stressful situations with earlier areas of the brain, we fall back on past experiences. In such circumstances we are saved by our culture.

This is far removed from the view that culture is “nice to have”. Janssen concludes that, the ” committed and proactive involvement of everyone ” does not work by way of directive. Guidance instead of control and allowing room for creative freedom unfettered by restrictions are more relevant than ever before – and work all the better the more they are practised. A culture of trust based on the individual skills of the employees and inspirational leadership enables faster, more flexible and more innovative action. However, this does not happen overnight. It has also been impeded due to the COVID-19 crisis.

A 2020 empirical study investigating the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the management culture in companies revealed some interesting findings and arrived at the following conclusion:

Top-level executives …rate their own performance as crisis managers and the culture of their company much more highly than other stakeholders do.”

The study noted a discrepancy between companies where “a tangible leadership crisis” has emerged and companies where “role models at the top” can support and inspire overwhelmed managers.

Equally interesting is an observation by the duo Doppelspitze :

“While the operational units … generally speaking actually cope well with digital structures, … managers, who even before the crisis seldom made a digital appearance, will fall even further behind.”

Those who harbour the expectation that everything will be the same as it ever was have already lost out. What’s more, Julia Collard and Sven Schnitzler anticipate the following: “The gap between those who turn the wheels and pull the levers of the economy and those who control it is threatening to get even wider.”

Even before covid-19 pandemic, the changing role of the manager was very much under discussion. The gravity of the situation now makes it patently clear that this really is a serious issue. Anyone genuinely interested in good management as a survival strategy has got no time to lose. Which brings us to a point in this article where we now broaden our perspective to include teams and the organisation as a whole.


Leadership needs self-leadership or: what’s the job of the employees?

Employees recent experience is roughly as follows: managers fall short of expectations, rash decisions are made without involving the team, communication between management and team suffers, contact with management deteriorates, and so on. There has often been a loss of trust which is slow to rebuild. Jens Spahn said “There will be a lot to pardon”. But the following statement by Prof. Dr. Nico Rose applies to both managers and employees in equal measure:

“Be mindful to yourself and kind to others” 

These objectives are best achieved through personal ego development beyond the individual comfort zone. The good news is: the opportunities for action expand with this development of the personality. This makes sense not only for people who see their job as a career, but also for those who want to be able to cope with uncertain and complex situations with greater confidence.

Hence, the Theme-Centred Interaction challenge to “be your own chairperson” is more relevant than ever before for all roles in a team. When open communication is officially required, I emphatically appeal for this to be taken seriously and, bearing it in mind, to inch forward step by step. This includes giving as well as asking for information from managers and, where there is still a lack of new ideas, sharing observations and formulating your own needs. This is certainly not the easiest thing to do when we consider that the managers have probably also regressed in their mindset and that all of us (especially those who carry out caring tasks) are currently subject to considerable stress.

By implication, my advice to management is the following: be aware that in this situation it takes even more courage than usual to communicate openly and constructively. As a manager, reach out with caution and seek a personal conversation in private. This information is invaluable, even when your counterpart has not yet put an idea on the table, but only expressed an uneasiness or a need.


Strengthening communication as a joint action

LEA founder Christina Grubendorfer calls attention to how important it is for us to communicate with each other is and why it is worthwhile doing everything in our power to promote it. She recommends looking beyond management roles to the organisation as a whole and specifically to the communication patterns.

As she sees it, leadership development has stopped short. In her opinion, what we really need is leadership development as a skill of the organisation and thus an undertaking for everyone. For example, teams should regularly ask themselves: what are we actually doing here, what will our future look like, are we viable?

So, whatever your role, let’s get going – on the path to a new understanding of leadership!