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2021 in review: Leadership lessons from Delta, Omicron, The Great Resignation and climate impact

By John M. Bremen | December 28, 2021

Future-focused leaders continue to operate successfully in a world of economic, geopolitical, social, and climate-related threats. Ten lessons learned from 2021 distinguish these leaders.
Employee Engagement |ESG and Sustainability|Future of Work|Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
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About the series

John Bremen is a guest contributor for Forbes.com, writing on topics including the future of work, leadership strategy, compensation and benefits, and sustainable strategies that support productivity and business success.

As future-seeking leaders close the books on another highly disruptive year, they acknowledge unprecedented levels of uncertainty will exist for the foreseeable future despite substantial advances in mitigating risk. These leaders focus on being flexible, adaptive and creative, and – despite challenges – continue to operate successfully in a world of economic, geopolitical, social, and climate-related threats.

Following are ten leadership lessons learned from 2021:

  1. 01

    Adopt a new mindset with risk

    Today, future-seeking leaders accept that risk has become a mainstream element of business and likely will remain so for the balance of their careers. The frequency and simultaneous occurrence of high-impact risks require both enhanced day-to-day management and agile planning for a “portfolio” of risks, supporting a culture of adaptability to incorporate new information that arrives daily or hourly, and being ready to act decisively when events happen.

  1. 02

    Commit to elastic innovation

    Elastic innovation is a mindset that, amidst disruptive markets, disrupts innovation itself, constantly expanding and contracting market response on a short-term, real-time basis, while simultaneously continuing to manage innovation pipelines for the long term. Innovative businesses are most resilient when their cultures and business models allow them to pivot quickly as they navigate through market uncertainty without losing long-term vision.

  2. 03

    Drive purpose AND profit

    Future-seeking leaders understand that purpose and profit are correlated, and that “purpose versus profits” is a false choice. They know purpose-driven organizations are well positioned to attract investors, keep and engage employees and customers, and stay true to business principles. Purpose serves as leadership glue that drives constancy in company culture while business models and daily operations transform.

  3. 04

    Use flexibility as an advantage

    Future-seeking leaders know that providing workers with flexible work, pay, benefit, and skill development programs results in significant competitive advantage over less flexible peers in terms pivoting operations when necessarily, as well as in broader talent access. Several studies demonstrate the value in operational and workplace flexibility.

  4. 05

    Get real about remote and hybrid work

Remote and hybrid models are effective for some but not all organizations or employees. Research suggests remote work eventually will stabilize for 25% to 40% of the global workforce. Future-seeking leaders analyze remote and hybrid work arrangements to understand their costs and benefits beyond reduced real estate and facilities. They ground decisions using sound fiscal analysis, factoring in the impact of enhanced access to talent markets, as well as productivity, engagement, turnover, culture, health, innovation and risk outcomes.

  1. 06

    Focus on employee wellbeing and organization resilience

    Future-focused leaders promote employee wellbeing, connecting the support of healthy, resilient employees to healthy, resilient organizations. Building greater organizational resilience is a defining mandate of the current environment, and provides a new form of competitive advantage. Future-focused leaders focus on operational, financial, and workforce resilience; for example, adopting practices and educating employees on effective interventions in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and addressing emotional wellbeing issues strengthens operational and workforce resilience.

  2. 07

    Lead with empathy, compassion, and transparency

    Future-seeking leaders practice empathy, compassion, and transparency in a number of ways, thus promoting psychological safety. They clearly lay out efforts to mitigate risks, helping employees feel confident that their employer genuinely cares about them and their families. They recognize the anxiety that accompanies high-impact events (including factors that impact physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing), and they address concerns associated with onsite work during crises.

  3. 08

    Understand that treating people fairly doesn’t mean treating them the same

One striking outcome of the current environment is the evolving employee view that fairness does not mean sameness. Employees want to be seen, heard and understood, and to have their individual work needs met. Successful leaders focus on fairness, dignity and belonging, as well as creating diverse and inclusive environments where employee voices are heard.

  1. 09

    Stay focused on talent during crises

    Regardless of circumstance, future-seeking leaders emphasize talent strategies that involve both offense and defense. They create places people want to be in the midst of “The Great Resignation.” Leaders strive to be “net talent gainers,” hiring more employees than they lose, and learning why people join and stay as well as why they leave. They differentiate culture and employee experiences instead of merely ratcheting up pay and perpetuating wage inflation. They also build programs that reflect what their employees need and want, ultimately creating great places to work.

  2. 10

    Support ESG and sustainability

    Future-seeking leaders understand that people, risk, and capital are interconnected across ESG (environmental, social, governance) factors. They act accordingly to fortify their organizational purpose, drive performance and gain support from key stakeholders, including investors, customers and employees. Leading companies take meaningful action around climate, social factors of ESG (such as DEI and wellbeing), and effective governance practices.

    Such leadership actions have helped to distinguish organizational performance in 2021 and continue to position companies for success in the future.

    A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on December 20, 2021.

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