Teesside University and Northern Power Women have asked a cross section of industry leaders to reflect on the leadership they have both provided and experienced this year, as part of the New Traits of Leadership Research. This was supported by Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor of Teesside University, Professor Dr Jane Turner OBE DL CCMI, who analysed the collective lived experiences of leadership throughout the pandemic, with the goal of deepening our understanding of leadership, and what exactly is needed to better equip everyone to lead and drive careers.
Turner, who leads business engagement at Teesside University, conducted her doctoral research on business leadership, with a focus on how senior leaders advance their authenticity. Having carried out her own research analysing case studies which repeated the same few theories, she remarked on how the unrest of 2020 has made her more determined to take advantage of the disruption. “Finally we might have a window of opportunity to start to shift the narrative on leaders, their leadership and leadership theory”.
Highlighting how the events of 2020 serve as the backdrop for this research, the leadership styles of our world leaders have been broadcast across all channels before being dissected under the microscope of the media, Turner cited her admiration for the approach of leaders such as Angela Merkel. At the start of the pandemic, she was candid with German citizens, informing them that up to 70% of them could become infected with the disease. The transparency of such acts unmask our global leaders as empathetic human beings. “Humanity in leaders is not a weakness, it’s actually a strength”, Turner asserted. Revealing the raw emotion behind a period of such turbulence, this research demonstrates how this evolved into some of the most transparent and compassionate examples of leadership.
This vulnerability and heightened self-awareness is reflected in some of the research findings, in which Turner describes there being “much more talk about feeling vulnerable, frightened, scared”. She also spoke of how the research provides “some granularity around that bridge between what I was experiencing as a leader and what the press was telling me”, by “capturing a point in time, how people were feeling in the midst of something that we have never faced before”.
As well as providing a glimpse into the lived experiences of leaders, the research also enables us to analyze how this, in turn, affects those who are being led. As Turner pointed out, “people will remember this moment and how they were treated”, taking these experiences forward with them as they carve out the future definitions of leadership. She is also keen to use the results of this research as a springboard, to grab the attention of industry leaders so that they might listen and approach upcoming findings with an open mind, so that we can begin to push for a different narrative about what good leadership looks like. With plans to share this data within a series of power circle meetings, Turner is eager to roll out the findings of this research across different age groups.
Talking to Turner, a theme she raised throughout the discussion was the prevalence of the upcoming generation in these debates surrounding leadership. As a university Pro-Vice Chancellor, Turner wishes to harness 2020 and the opportunities it has provided “so that students coming through learn about a different approach to leadership”. Against the backdrop of an increasingly competitive job market, where young people are falling from the bottom rungs of the career ladders that generations before us have climbed, Turner stressed the importance of young people feeling that they have the authority to lead, and that current industry leaders must tap into the maturity that young people have developed over the past year, rather than waiting for them to be promoted to higher roles.
This crucial research marks our chance to re-prioritise, and begin to shift the narrative surrounding business leadership theory, away from the unsustainability of traditional definitions of leadership, and towards a more diverse collective understanding that incorporates the array of successful leadership approaches we have seen demonstrated this year.