Updated: Nov 10
Four things to consider as we navigate an ever-changing world.
Picture the term "leader" in your mind. What do you see? What is this leader like? What makes them a good leader? What is their gender? And their temperament? Do they rule with an iron fist or are they quiet in the meeting, listening to others?
As we head into even more uncertain and challenging times, there is much debate today about whether traditional models of leadership are relevant for the diverse, inclusive future we want. What other paths are possible to support a new wave of modern leaders?
Our April event, Leadership in Uncertain Times, featured a unique and dynamic panel of experts who discussed the whole paradigm of work structure, leadership and gender parity. These experts were:
Bastiaan van Rooden, Co-founder, Peerdom
Nadja Perroulaz, Co-Founder, Lead People and Board President, Liip AG
Ewa Anselm-Jedlinska, Director, PwC Geneva Commodity Trading & Shipping practice
Moderated by Women in Digital Switzerland’s own Rachael Camp, the panel brought together their unique perspectives, ideas and experiences to show a different leadership model for the future. Our audience of WDS members also contributed greatly to the discussion, showing how critical a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and ideas are for defining leadership today.
While there were many ideas shared, we’ve highlighted four key takeaways from the discussion
1. The existing systems and ideas around leadership only work for a select few and in order to serve a diverse population, they must be challenged.
Limiting the definition of an effective leader decreases the opportunity for diverse leadership, ultimately hindering a team's full potential. Diversity in a team should be seen beyond a box ticking exercise. A diversity of life experiences can provide knowledge, insights and cultural richness that a narrow lens cannot.
In society, we have a certain idea of which emotions are okay to express in the workplace, depending on which gender is expressing an emotion. The panel talked about what happens when a woman cries at work and how she is seen by her colleagues versus how a man is seen when he shouts. Even though the two reactions are a result of strong emotions, we see crying as weak, and are more likely to have respect for a show of anger.
Although using aggressive communication and tactics may appear to get results, it is detrimental in the long-run. It decreases the feeling of psychological safety and in turn, can destabilise the team and encourage team members to shrink, contribute fewer ideas and feel unwilling to challenge.
This also highlights the invisible biases we all hold against different groups. Acknowledging these and unpacking them is incredibly important in fostering an inclusive, diverse and successful working environment.
Even if a company uses quotas to hire for leadership positions, this is not effective if the people hired cannot feel safe enough to be able to express their feelings and ideas. The panel suggested that rather than using quotas, they should instead look for a diversity of life paths, background and experiences.
As Ewa highlighted:
“There is a long way to go! The work is not done by introducing initiatives.”
2. A sense of belonging is a key factor in the psychological safety of employees
Humans are a social species by nature, and the feeling of belonging allows us to feel nurtured and supported.
Our panellists emphasised that belonging goes beyond categorising diversity and instead revolves around recognising the diverse life paths, experiences and perspectives that individuals contribute to a team. They underscored the significance of embracing the uniqueness of each person. By fostering an environment where diverse team members feel secure in expressing their views, the chances of uncovering comprehensive solutions to complex problems significantly increases.
“Diversity is achieved when team members feel they can express their views and be heard. This type of psychological safety is needed to express views and inspire others eager to learn. Diverse teams are made of people with different backgrounds in an environment where they can share their different views.”
One way to achieve the feeling of belonging in any organisation is through the Holacracy structure (discussed in more detail below). It promotes a flat organisational structure, allowing leaders to emerge through democratic means. It empowers individuals to actively listen, assume various roles, and approach meetings with an open mind to address challenges.
This self-leadership approach has proven particularly beneficial for women, as teams can embrace equal space to voice their ideas, take responsibility and stand by their decisions. It not only mitigates decision-making risks, but also enables working in a flexible manner based on team norms. By aligning with core values, Holacracy instills a stronger sense of purpose for everyone involved.
3. Self leadership allows colleagues to take ownership of their career, work on their areas of interest and passions and increase their self esteem.
Self-leadership is a vital component within the Holacracy framework. Unlike traditional hierarchical structures, Holacracy eliminates external decision-makers, giving individuals the autonomy to make decisions themselves. While advice is available, individuals are empowered as the ultimate decision-makers, fostering autonomy and accountability.
Liip AG have made self-leadership a central component of their business, and Nadja explained to us how this looks day-to-day, and how it has benefitted the organisation:
“There are no C-level managers, and individuals have the autonomy to decide which roles they want to work in. The company has 8-10 roles, and each role can be taken on with a minimum percentage of time worked. Decision-making is decentralised, and individuals are empowered to be self-leaders. The system organises work, not people.”
Nadja highlighted the benefit of agenda items being unknown prior to meetings and therefore lobbying at work happens only during meetings in the company. Additionally, having a facilitator role in meetings helps to ensure respectful conversations, equal speaking time, and better listening. Nadja also believes that the willingness of current management to embrace change is crucial for successful transformation.
4. The Holacratic Model has benefits that can be wide-ranging and can work for a variety of different organisations, from large to small.
Overall, the Holacratic Model offers a non-traditional and flexible approach to organisational structure and management. It promotes empowerment, autonomy, collaboration, and a culture of innovation, which are all key ingredients necessary to adapt in today's dynamic business environment.
In this model, instead of a traditional hierarchical structure with rigid roles and top-down decision-making, the organisation is composed of self-organising teams called circles. It is believed to be an effective tool for challenging existing leadership styles and promoting greater gender diversity. A diverse team, in the context of Holacracy, means having people with different life paths and backgrounds who can freely express their views and be heard.
Inclusive leadership is a fundamental principle of Holacracy, reducing discrimination across all levels of the organisation.
Bastiaan Van Rooden discovered the Holacratic model after experiencing a burnout. He applied the learnings from this time of reflection to form his company, adopting a very different way of working. He described the way he challenged traditional hierarchical structures:
“A hierarchical system makes sense in a factory, but not in knowledge work.”
Peerdom is the opposite of the kingdom, at his company. Bastiaan took the bold decision to eliminate the career dismantling the hierarchy within the organisation. “Just one team member decided to leave under this strucuture because he could not have been without the C in his job title”: Bastiaan mentioned.
Successfully implementing Holacracy requires a willingness to embrace change, empower others, and establish a robust organisational system that supports these principles. We cultivate a culture of self-leadership, inclusivity and purpose with this approach, creating an environment where everyone can thrive and belong.
Conclusion - Advice for WDS members
At the end of the panel, we asked each panel member for their advice for women moving into a leadership role. They gave some excellent advice, and one piece that stood out was from Eglantine, who said:
“A good leader is one who probably knows limits, admits that you do not know everything and that it is the collective intelligence knowing you are vulnerable. Empathy is key to a lot of problems in this world.”
We couldn’t agree more!
Some key things to consider when thinking about the leadership of the future includes:
Encouraging diversity of life paths
Create an environment of psychological safety
Discover and address personal and collective internalised biases
Provide flexibility within a company structure and day-to-day work
Create a strong commitment from executive leadership
So what’s next? Here are some things you could do to future-proof your leadership skills:
Check out the resources we have listed at the end of this article
Join our community and discuss this topic with WDS volunteers and community members in the forum
Attend our future events and sign up to our newsletter to be notified when they are taking place
Thank you to both Karen Bhavnani and Jana Lughart, who contributed heavily to this article. We also thank our speakers and those who attended the event and shared their insights.