At the start of each new year, experts or popular publications typically announce that infamous list (that we see every year) of which popular leadership trends are “out” and which new leadership trends are officially “in.”
I, for one, dislike those lists. They send the wrong message.
Those lists imply that the powerful insights and key concepts you spent time investing in last year were, ultimately, a waste of your time, never really impactful and, worst of all, that they should be discarded in favor of the latest, greatest shiny new idea.
This is a huge mistake.
While I understand that leadership concepts evolve with the times (thanks to well-vetted research that helps us evaluate what really works at a more accurate and sophisticated level), the truth, nonetheless, remains that the valid techniques and approaches we embraced over recent years were never meant to be “trends” (no matter how much people were buzzing about them in the moment). They are and were always meant to be tools — something to add to your comprehensive leadership toolbox to pull from as needed, among other effective tools, to best address each unique situation and leadership challenge you face.
You wouldn’t throw out your screwdriver just because you bought a new hammer. You need both to build something effectively. You also wouldn’t toss out your favorite putter because you acquired a new nine iron. You need both to successfully navigate a challenging golf course.
Likewise, don’t abandon the leadership ideas, concepts and strategies you’ve learned (and are still slowly-but-surely mastering) simply because a new idea is trending online and at this year’s conference circuit. Also, don’t clasp onto any single new idea thinking it alone will solve every one of your leadership challenges.
My point: No one leadership tool is the holy grail, one-size-fits-all solution.
For example, “leaders as coaches” was a popular concept last year. Hundreds of articles were published on the topic, teams were trained on the concept, books were written and read, and it was absolutely an idea worth everyone’s time and consideration. (Personally, I’m a big advocate of leaders strengthening their coaching skills.) That said, “coaching” is not the only thing your team needs from you, nor will it resolve every situation or challenge.
Last year, I worked with a smart, dedicated leader who had a problem employee on his team. The leader wanted to leverage coaching techniques to hopefully address this employee’s performance issues. But, as we dug in a bit deeper, the truth was, the employee’s issues were actually a frustrating but entirely fair response to larger problems within the team’s dynamic. The employee was being unfairly used as a scapegoat in that situation.
That one employee didn’t need coaching. The real issue was that communication about expectations and priorities from the leader on down was not clear. Constant confusion was causing unnecessary conflict among the team members. This particular employee was just being a bit more vocal and “annoying” about the problem. The leader I worked with realized he needed to use another tool first to address the situation (e.g., self-awareness and inquiry) to understand how he, as the leader, had a hand in the creating the problem. Then, he had to pull out a few other leadership tools to clean up communication, ease tensions, restore trust and get the team back on track again.
Coaching definitely had a place in the solution further down the list, but to truly resolve the real issue, the leader needed to pull from a diverse and well-stocked toolbox of skills and strategies to address the situation comprehensively.
So, regarding the leadership “trends” that may get put on the out list this year, let me reassure you:
• “Leaders as coaches” is still relevant.
• The importance of stress management and mindfulness is still relevant.
• Learning how to lead in complex environments is still relevant.
• Servant leadership is absolutely still relevant.
Keep practicing those leadership skills. Keep cultivating them to the best of your ability. Keep them (and the rest of your leadership tools) in tip-top shape.
And this year, sure, let’s see what new well-researched wisdom the experts reveal. If there is a new concept or approach that comes out, lean into it. Read up on it. Practice it a bit. See where it does (and does not) serve your specific goals as an ethical and effective people leader. By all means, add it to your toolbox.
But, be sure to also keep all of those other powerful and effective tools you learned last year (and across all the years of your career) close at hand.