Navigating the top 3 crucial tensions of leadership

Organizations must understand and address the challenges and pressures their leaders face or risk their talent and L&D efforts underperforming.

While it has been said that the only constant in life is change, the pace of change in the last several years may feel unprecedented. It has impacted us personally as well as where and how we work. Leaders are overwhelmed, often doing more with less, and their organizations – most often the HR, talent and L&D teams – are looking for solutions to keep them engaged and their teams successful. 

There is a lot of emphasis on reskilling and upskilling leaders to lead effectively. However, organizations must first understand and address the challenges and pressures their leaders face or risk their L&D efforts underperforming. 

In joint research, the Center for Creative Leadership and ExecOnline surveyed and analyzed global responses from more than 43,000 leaders, at various levels of seniority, to better understand the challenges and barriers they face and what skills and support they need to lead more effectively. 

The three key tensions that organizations must address in order to enable leaders to lead effectively detailed in our recent research report, “3 Tensions Leaders Should Resolve in 2023” are: 

Tension 1: Leaders want to work virtually – but it’s socially isolating.

Tension 2: Leaders want more development opportunities – but they are burned out.

Tension 3: Leaders need to make hard decisions – but they also need to motivate and
engage talent.

We’ve broken these three tensions down, along with steps leaders and organizations can take to resolve these pressures. 

Leaders want to work virtually – but it’s socially isolating

Return to office is making headlines with 90 percent of companies planning to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024. This is at odds with what employees want; according to a recent Gallup survey only 12 percent of employees want to return to the office full time. The reasons are many, but among those we surveyed, 75 percent of leaders reported that they appreciate the time saved by avoiding a commute and most also welcome added flexibility. Where the tension lies is that more than half (53 percent) of leaders surveyed identified difficulty building relationships as a major barrier to effective virtual or hybrid work.

So how can organizations help leaders balance the benefits of working virtually with the human connections leaders crave?

  1. Invest in virtual collaboration and communication technologies to increase engagement and improve team productivity.
  2. Encourage cross-functional collaboration (e.g., major cross-functional projects or brainstorms) to ensure teams have opportunities to work across departments. 
  3. Incorporate group coaching into leadership development programs, which provides leaders with a shared experience to explore a leadership theme, collaborate on shared goals and reflect on the skills the group needs to achieve those goals. 

By taking these steps, organizations will foster a culture of collaboration and innovation, helping the organization meet its objectives. More so, employees get the social interaction they desire while working where and how they want to.

Leaders want more development opportunities – but they are burned out

Almost half the leaders we surveyed (41 percent) said they want more learning and development opportunities – second only to the 46 percent who said they need more resources. Yet, 72 percent of leaders said they are at least somewhat burned out, so fitting in development may seem overwhelming.

The irony is that by developing strong leadership capabilities, leaders should ultimately feel less overwhelmed, decreasing the high burnout percentages we’ve come accustomed to over the past few years. They’ll be more productive, achieve more personal and organizational goals and have a more engaged team. 

It’s important to underscore that not all learning is created equal. Traditional in-person, episodic learning models may not be sufficient in the fast-paced world of today’s workplace. HR, talent and L&D teams must find ways to provide learning experiences to mitigate leader burnout, including:

  1. Be easy to access and consume – using short sessions, accessible virtually and on demand. 
  2. Focus on personal development – ideally integrating one-on-one coaching. 
  3. Provide offerings on topics that are of personal interest to leaders – including addressing burnout.

By investing in modern learning and development platforms, employees will be empowered to acquire new skills and knowledge at their own pace, thereby decreasing burnout and satisfying a core need for individuals, teams and organizations.

Leaders need to make hard decisions – but they also need to motivate and engage talent

A silver lining to the challenges we’ve recently experienced has been the emphasis on empathetic leadership. While we’ve seen businesses return to some pre-pandemic practices, we expect employees to hold firm to their need for a human-centered workplace. Leaders now need to strike the balance between leading strategically for long-term success with ensuring their team members are engaged to execute against the organizational strategy.

To resolve this paradox, organizations must rely on the capabilities of their leaders to both prioritize today’s limited budgets and resources and engage employees. But this is easier said than done; analysis of our survey data finds 30 percent of leaders are highly proficient at strategic prioritization, 32 percent are highly proficient at talent engagement and only 9 percent are highly proficient in both skill sets.

There is great opportunity, however. Organizations must maximize the efficiency of their L&D spend by focusing leadership development programs on the most critical capabilities for today’s workplace to ensure leaders can lead effectively and empathetically.

  • Key strategic skills: Prioritizing work for self and others; managing workload with fewer team members; and making critical business decisions amidst uncertainty. 
  • Key talent engagement skills: Supporting team members’ overall wellbeing; keeping employees motivated without monetary or promotion incentives; and maintaining organizational and team culture.

The societal and organizational pace of change is unlikely to slow down and these tensions will undoubtedly continue. But by facing them head-on through cross-functional collaboration, accessible and continuous development opportunities and reinforced strategic and talent engagement skills, organizations and their leaders can overcome them and find greater success this year and beyond.