The qualities, skills, and behaviors expected of corporate leaders are changing; traditional authoritarian leadership is giving way to a more flexible, service-focused approach sometimes described as “servant” leadership.

This is partly a response to two-plus years of Covid-related upheavals in how and where we work and partly a response to the Great Resignation. Workers in many organizations and industries are taking back their power and demanding greater flexibility and improved work-life balance—and leaders who aren’t responding risk losing their top employees to organizations that are embracing the new paradigm. This article briefly explores this shift and makes recommendations about how learning leaders and L&D teams can help guide their organizations through these changes.

Roots of the shift

Many people worked at home during the pandemic and enjoyed the additional flexibility this allowed; they may resist returning to the office for many reasons, including safety concerns; scheduling issues or lack of childcare or elder care; being unwilling to go back to the commute and extra time and costs that working onsite entails; and discovering that they are more productive at home and see no reason to be in the office.

Workers who lost or changed jobs during the pandemic or experienced crisis, trauma, and loss may have re-evaluated their priorities and decided that work no longer trumps everything else important in their lives. These workers may cut back on work, retire early, or seek different work that is more meaningful, more flexible, or both.

In both the above cases, workers are demanding greater autonomy and flexibility in setting their work hours and locations; they expect managers and corporate leaders to see them as people first, rather than “resources” to be maximized.

In addition, some elements of conventional leadership are changing because they don’t transfer well to leading a hybrid or remote team. Where companies have moved to these models, and teams are scattered among different physical locations, managers no longer are present to oversee many tasks, participate in conversations between colleagues, or enforce rules and processes. Leaders at these organizations need to figure out how to effectively manage teams under vastly different conditions from a few years ago.

How does the new leadership differ from the old?

Key features of the leadership paradigm change are that old-style top-down, rule-bound “leadership” is on its way out; a more flexible, relationship-focused approach, sometimes described as servant leadership, is becoming the norm. According to the UK-based CMI, “The pandemic has put another nail in the coffin of command-and-control management.”

“Remote work means that you have to trust your team members to do the right thing, even when you can’t see or hear them. The shift from command and control to trust, influence, and support is a huge sea change,” CMI said.

The change in leadership skills and traits accelerated during the pandemic but was evident even before. The rapid pace of change in the digital age means that “Digital leadership requires adaptability to handle pressure and constant changes, and to take decisions with agility,” according to the World Economic Forum.

This demands a learning culture: “When organizations create a culture of learning, failures and experiments lead to inventions and innovations.” Above all, “leaders need to energize everyone and inspire them with an inclusive vision,” the WEF stated. Leadership must be developed at all levels, and “the top-down approach is no longer sustainable.”

A different WEF report highlighted three things that workers want post-pandemic: Flexibility, including the ability to work from home three days per week; clear communication about expectations and goals; and an employer focus on well-being and mental health.

These are not things that workers would typically request—or expect—in an authoritarian, rule-bound workplace culture, and they are emblematic of the changed expectations that many workers have of their leadership.

HBR concurs, emphasizing the need to create connection among team members and between teams. “In the wake of the pandemic and the vast shift to flexible work from anywhere policies, 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers. Employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, with lonely employees costing US companies up to $406 billion a year,” HBR said.

Antidotes could include intentional practices that create connection, rather than counting on spontaneous "water-cooler" connections that no longer occur, building frameworks that make it easy for team members to ask one another for assistance and support, and implementing flexible policies that enable—and encourage—employees to take breaks, recharge, and define hours when they are not accessible via digital means.

Learning leaders can help shift the paradigm

The new leadership paradigm requires new and different leadership skills. Learning leaders may be called on to train managers in coaching, providing feedback, and conducting the kinds of conversations with their employees that convey empathy and caring—without being too personal or invasive. It’s a skill that many people, managers or not, struggle to master. Other soft skills leaders might need to hone include delegating, setting evaluation criteria that focus more on results than on process, and providing feedback and guidance that set workers up to succeed—while allowing for the experimentation that includes making mistakes.

As a team that touches and trains all employees at all levels, L&D teams can also facilitate progress in shaping a workplace culture that emphasizes learning, encourages collaboration and connection, and fosters relationships across departments and teams.

This can start with discussions and soft skills training that bring together managers or team members from different departments and expand to setting up and facilitating discussion channels that build connection and encourage participants to support one another.

Specific leadership training might call for developing new training that allows leaders at different levels and from different departments to discuss their challenges and try on new skills and communication styles with one another or using scenario-based learning. It might also entail looking outward, to source leadership training or bring in expert coaches.

Learn more

The Learning Guild’s new eBook, Level Up: Preparing for a New Learning Leadership Paradigm, examines the changing leadership paradigm—and its implications for learning leaders and their L&D teams.

And the Learning Leaders Online Forum, March 16–17, offers the opportunity to explore the changing skills, practices, and strategies of leadership with your peers. Sixteen sessions bring industry experts together with hundreds of your peers to explore the challenges and issues facing learning leaders today.