Leadership: A Year Behind; A Year Ahead

When it comes to watershed years, I think many of us can agree that 2021 is a strong contender for the top position.

While, we may still be a few weeks away from the official end, in looking back at our journey to date, 2021 will mark the first full year that the world has been grappling with COVID-19; a pandemic that in generating vast and long-lasting socioeconomic disruptions, forced people the globe over to rethink and relook at the way we operate, grow and develop, lead, and most of all, co-exist.

The ongoing extraordinary circumstances and conditions brought about by COVID-19 this past year have not been the only major concern on the global plate. Nations also battled with a wide gamut of challenges ranging from persistent migration and environmental crises to massive civil instability and loss of lives and livelihoods, due to wide scale strife and struggle.

In the face of all those factors, there were also moments that gave us hope.

From the aggressive rollout of COVID-19 vaccine programmes across the world to the promises of decisive measures to be adopted by progressive world’s leaders to confront the various crises we face (for example, COP26 and the global summits), we proved that in the face of adversity, there is always hope…and with hope, there is a chance of making tomorrow better.

Without question or exception, leaders faced one crisis after another in 2021, and in their stories, we could distil connections, similarities and lessons. It is also beneficial for us to take a page from how they handled matters (or didn’t handle them, as the case might be).

However, that is something that I believe we each should attempt on our time, if we haven’t already begun doing so.

To me, the primary leadership lesson that 2021 has taught us is that, while life as we know it may change drastically at the drop of hat, the readiness continues to be all.

The Readiness is ALL

From that perspective, while this year may have been erratic and disruptive, it has also been instructive. It has taught us what it truly means to be ready and, of course, what it means if we are not.

As leaders, we must continue the unenviable task, doing our level best, of reflecting on the year that was, taking away those essential lessons that will ultimately serve us well in 2022 and beyond, and above all, effectively applying them as we move forward.

I know this year has given us a lot. So it’s understandable that each of us would have our own special list. I want to share mine in the hopes that 1) we could start a much needed discussion on how we’re prepping ourselves for the next 365 and 2) in drawing whatever comparisons or instructions, rekindle that hope within each of us; that hope for better that I truly believe will make all the difference in 2022.

So, let’s get ready to say goodbye to 2021 and hello to 2022.

1. Look Out. Look Up. Look Ahead

Let’s start with the simple stuff. In your honest opinion, what would a successful 2022 look like?

While we may all have a general idea of what this concept would look like – covering the basics of increased business opportunities and a greater handle on many of the socioeconomic and environmental issues plaguing us – sadly we are not all going to agree on this answer.

And that is ok. Because what success looks like varies greatly from person to person, and from company to company. As leaders, we are tasked with knowing (and understanding) what's important for the future of our business, our brand, and our people. We are continually challenged to look at what is happening around us and make the best decisions.

We’re always looking. But sometimes, it becomes difficult to know just where to look.

While I still think that too many of us cling to the past, holding on to that whimsical wish that we can go back to the way we were before 2020, a true leader must not only look elsewhere but also “elsewhen”.

As instructive as the past may be, it is just that, the past. So, if we are looking TO the future, then as leaders, we must look AT the future as well.

We also all know that pre-COVID days will never happen. Experts have predicted that by 2023, COVID will become endemic. It is here for the very long term.

But maybe the inability to return to a pre-COVID existence isn’t such a bad thing. Because if we could erase the events of the past year, we would erase the lessons we learned as well. And if we have learned nothing, then facing the future becomes all the more daunting because we would have no tools to effectively deal with it.

So while we have all been affected, in various ways and to various extents, across the board, the lessons we have learned as leaders must hold tremendous merit in shaping who we will continue to be as leaders.

We should never look away from them. Instead, we need to Look Out, Look Up, and Look Ahead.

As we set about the task of mapping tomorrow, we should always “Look Out” for opportunities and threats; “Look Up” to leadership examples across a variety of industries and disciplines for inspiration; and “Look Ahead” to a future that is bright, and if that future seems unclear at times, do all that we can to make it just that much clearer for our people and ourselves.

Show Gratitude: Always Thank Your People. They Are Our People

Honestly, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Regardless of how one looks at it, 2021 has been a challenge unlike many of us have ever seen before. While some of us have come out of it, relatively unscathed, there are many who cannot make such a claim. What’s more, many of these people are OUR people.

Let’s be real here, since the pandemic, the proverbial goalposts have shifted so drastically that many of us are right to wonder if the game is still the same.

(It is, by the way. But many of the rules have changed.)

However, one of the rules that has not and must not change, is treating our people with respect – serving them to the best of our abilities and leading them confidently into the future we deserve.

There is too much at stake to drop this ball. As we have seen and heard, people are under a great deal of stress. Compassion goes a long way. Both sincerity and purpose in our words and actions as leaders are critical if we are to continue securing our teams’ buy in and support.

In other words, our people need to see us leading and hear from us as we lead, if we are to instil and build upon their confidence in our leadership abilities.

Quite frankly, I have always believed that rallying the troops, as it were, in times of crisis, holds tremendous benefits for our teams and speaks volumes to our leadership styles. However, a little gratitude goes a long way…especially, if it is expressed often and sincerely…and BEFORE crisis hits.

Don’t wait for circumstances to get even direr before we engage our people.

As we close off this year and get ready to embrace the next, never neglect to tell your people “Thank You” for all their hard work, sacrifice, and commitment to the organisation.

What’s more, show them.

I know that it may not possible to reward and recognise them in the ways that we would really like to, but this isn’t about showering gifts or money on our teams. It is about showing both appreciation and compassion. Two gestures that will go far in strengthening the team.

And trust me when I say that come 2022, stronger teams are going to be the critical deciding factor between failure and success.

Question More; Doubt Less

Whether it was via traditional means or newer, non-conventional social media means, information continued to be the major player in 2021. It seemed that the world got a bit smaller with the speed at which information spread. And that world is going to get even smaller and that information is going to spread even faster and wider.

As information hit us at every angle and at every turn, leaders were especially tasked with thoroughly vetting the facts and then making the best possible decisions based on those facts.

For many of us, this proved difficult because with every new piece of information coming our way, we seemed to lose a little bit of what we held on to before. But this doesn’t have to be so.

As leaders, we are continually called to question what is presented to us but at no point should we ever doubt in ourselves and what we know.

Don’t abandon the knowledge and values that define you as a leader. Build on them. Build on them to the point where they (and you) can stand strong amidst the raging storms.

Our people will respect us for that.

Keep the Faith

We don’t know what awaits in 2022. For starters, we began 2021 dealing with one troublesome variant of COVID-19, only to end it with a completely different, more contagious one. Life happens and changes fast, it seems.

Our people, however, will continue to look up to us for answers. Answers that we may not always have. However, faith is something that every great leader has (and has to have) in spades. Whether that be faith in a higher being or faith in the power of the team, a leader is armed to the teeth with that fundamental belief that no matter how hard or challenging times are at present, they WILL get better.

What’s more, a leader is prepared to take those difficult steps and decisions to achieve that future.

The leader that believes this, and is able to motivate his or her teams, bringing to life and sharing this faith, is the one that is able to keep their teams united, regardless of what the future holds.

There is a good reason why it is said that “faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” Trust me when I say that 2022 will bring those kinds of mountains that need moving.

Are we prepared as leaders to bring those mustard seeds to the table? Are we prepared to nurture those seeds within our teams? We have to be if success is the prize.

We Are All in This Together

We have had quite a year and we have taken quite the journey. Above all, I am grateful that each and every one of you has decided to take it with me.

Personally, as I prep for the next year, I’m reminded of that line from the Sinatra classic, My Way, that says “I planned each charted course/Each careful step along the byway/And more, much more than this/ I did it my way.”

Old Blue Eyes hit the nail on the head there. But where he went alone, we have each other.

Let’s continue to lead our people with distinction, pride, and confidence. Let us do it OUR WAY.

From my team and my family to you and yours, Have a Merry Christmas and together, let’s plan those courses, take those careful steps, and do it our way as we seize a brighter and more prosperous 2022.

Be safe and we’ll meet up again in the New Year.

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