That sparked the first two parts of this series on the virtual leader. Part 1 dealt with building trust virtually, Part 2 on virtual communications. In this article, Part 3, I will describe what I consider to be the 3 most important leadership qualities and why they are needed in the virtual environment: strength of character, adaptability, and competence.
1. Strength of character
The concept of character has been described in a variety of different ways, many of which center around having the confidence to do the right thing, particularly when no one is watching.[i] Dictionary.com describes it as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual[ii], which is close to what I think of character--our core, our moral compass. We can have a strong or a weak character. Having a weak character leads to being out of integrity and its consequence, a complete lack of trust. True leaders have a strong character. But what does that mean and why is it important in the virtual world?
I think strength of character is needed by all leaders. We all face situations in which our character is tested to a greater or lesser extent. In extreme cases, we might be told to do something shady, like fudge a report or exaggerate results. Fortunately, however, that is rare. More often we show a weak character by going along with bad ideas or not speaking up when the organization is heading in what we think is the wrong direction. Sometimes it’s being asked to get a project done by a date that we know we can’t meet, yet we say nothing or agree to that date.
A strong character allows us to empathize, to listen to others and try to understand their world. It gives us the courage to recommend the right thing for the organization. It gives us resilience. When we get knocked down (which happens to all of us), resilience and courage allow us to admit our mistakes, learn from them, and start anew.
All leaders need strength of character. But it’s harder to recognize what the right thing is. It’s even harder to get executives, your team, and your colleagues on board, when you’re all working remotely. It may take longer and be more frustrating. Nevertheless, it’s essential for everyone in the org to perceive you as a person of strong character. That’s how we build trust and credibility.
Being adaptable means adjusting to new environments, and there are many ways adaptability applies to the virtual leader. I’ll touch working from home, a quick note on Agile, and our comfort level with chaos.
Several articles have suggested that one of the key leadership traits in the “post-covid-19” world is adaptability.[iii] They cite the need to adapt to the new world of working from home and having to learn to use new technology like video-conferencing.
To be sure adapting to the virtual world is essential, and if we have not already adjusted to using Zoom or GoToMeeting or WebEx technology, we certainly need to do so. But adaptability is much more. We need to be flexible with staff who have competing demands of family and work. We need to adjust to barking dogs, interruptions by kids, spouses, roommates, and partners. One article in Fast Company Journal even suggested that people are more productive with a 4-day work week.[iv] Perhaps we need to adjust our thinking about how much work is enough. Also important is the whole nature of productivity and how to measure it. Many in our industry have already adapted to similar changes, but for those project managers who need structure and want staff to be available throughout the “traditional” workday and work week, these changes are going to be difficult.
In addition, effective virtual leaders are comfortable with having the team create plans, as well as revise them as often as needed. Which brings me to Agile. If we’re going to survive as virtual leaders, we need make Agile work remotely. A few of the Agile principles may be harder to implement when the team is working from home, but they can and need to be adapted to the remote workplace so that the essence of the principles remains intact.
Effective virtual leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and create order when no one seems to know what order looks like. Certainly, it’s easier to recognize that our environment has become chaotic when we’re collocated. But leading virtually means creating structures for recognizing early warning signs and for getting our projects back on track. Chaos will remain part of our lives, work and otherwise, so virtual leaders, if they are true leaders, will figure out how to thrive in it themselves but minimize it for the team.
The virtual leader can create structures to build trust and maximize communications. But unless that leader is competent, these structures will not hold up. Leaders, virtual and not, typically require competence of team members. And the team needs to be able to count on the competence of the virtual leader. Competent virtual leaders know what they’re talking about. They understand project management, business analysis, Agile, and other project disciplines. They also know how to navigate the political waters.
Competent virtual leaders ask good questions and provide advice, both of which require an understanding of the topic at hand. Effective virtual leaders ask for the team’s input, so they need to understand whether or not the input moves both the team and the organization forward. They also have a solid understanding of what’s happening not just on the team, but within the organization, so that they can communicate to the team transparently.
To be effective the leader needs to be viewed as competent not just by the team, but by the organization at large. Teams suffer when led by leaders who are not well-respected by their colleagues, their teams, and Management. This is particularly true in a virtual environment. For example, when team issues arise that require resources beyond the team, the team will suffer if the leader can’t procure them. Resolving issues and thus establishing credibility is harder when we can’t meet immediately and face-to-face. It’s almost impossible when we don’t know what we’re doing.
Successful virtual leaders have these three qualities—strength of character adaptability, and competence. Virtual leaders without these qualities are apt to manage more and lead less. They are more likely to rely their authority rather than inspiration. Some will abdicate, pushing everything onto the team, thus not leading at all. Virtual leaders will be tested more, and without these three qualities they risk being ignored, disrespected, or perhaps even replaced.
[iii] 7 Leadership Traits for the Post-Covid Workplace, Dana Brownlee, Forbes, May 7, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2020/05/07/7-leadership-traits-for-the-post-covid-19-workplace/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailydozen-house&cdlcid=5d1670e71802c8c524d6a993&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailydozen&cdlcid=5d1670e71802c8c524d6a993#430ada3a2d4d
[iv] Fast Company, May 13, 2020, https://www.fastcompany.com/video/todays-fast-break-rethinking-the-5-day-workweek-and-reenacting-your-old-commute/KKSlr5r3?utm_campaign=eem524%3A524%3As00%3A20200513_fc&utm_medium=Compass&utm_source=newsletter