People + Strategy Journal

Fall 2022

Redefining What 'Good' Looks Like

The messiness of leadership poses significant risks. But this is also a period of tremendous opportunity in HR. We get to be active participants in rethinking what “good” looks like for the 21st century.

By David Reimer, People + Strategy Executive Editor

Leadership is messy. Its boundaries are fluid, and the decisions and challenges that rise to executive levels in organizations are usually those with no clearsolutions. For human resource professionals, increasingly called upon to advise and help others to adapt, two additional factors further complicate their responsibility to help guide the ship.

First, while there is an emerging and shared understanding of why leadership models from the 20th century failed (top-down decision-making, hierarchical org structure, forced rankings and annual talent purges, etc.), much less alignment exists about what constitutes good leadership in this decade. Today's list of desired attributes contains myriad seeming contradictions: lead from the front, lead from behind; be decisive, be collaborative; be inclusive, be distinctive; be empathetic, drive change quickly; think long term, stay constantly agile; focus on stakeholder impact, focus on shareholder return. It's a lot to ask of any individual leader—it's a lot more to ask of an entire enterprise.

Second, the problem sets facing leaders and their organizations in this era are increasingly people challenges. As such, HR's expertise and involvement—and the expectations of solid insights and advice—are in higher demand than ever before, at a time when so many of the issues are first-time encounters for all of us. 

I wrote "in this era" in the previous paragraph, rather than "in the pandemic," for a specific reason. It feels like it's time to stop framing our discussions as if the past two years were a discrete passage we have navigated and are about to exit. Rather, it might be more pragmatic to think about having entered a period of more general instability and uncertainty, and to reframe our day jobs as leaders, as organizational designers and planners, to accommodate a terrain that's going to keep shifting beneath us. The editorial viewpoint of this issue is that we should identify the suite of balancing acts of leadership within our organizations, and then build new playbooks to better design our structures, develop our leaders and redefine our employer-employee relationships for the 21st century.

One of the challenges about transitioning from one form of leadership to another is that such changes introduce instability into the systems that scaled up under the legacy models of leadership. Barbara F. Walter, in her informative and thoroughly researched book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (Crown, 2022), notes that both autocracies and full democracies are relatively stable and predictable. In contrast, according to the data, civil wars are most likely to erupt in countries moving from autocracy to democracy, or slipping out of democracy toward autocracy—in other words, the middle periods when leadership norms, systems and expectations are in flux.

Walter's thesis is relevant for businesses operating in a world where the sliding scale between democracy and autocracy is in motion across many of our markets. More subtly—and I don't want to push this metaphor too far—as leaders in organizations ourselves, many if not most of us grew up with leadership playbooks that more closely resembled those of reasonably benevolent autocracies. Today's shift to stakeholder capitalism is now placing different demands on executives and organizational cultures. Increasingly, leaders must deliver value in ways more closely akin to those of politicians in high-functioning democracies, as well as produce the results expected of traditional, bottom- line-oriented operators.

Clearly, running an organization (and especially a for-profit business, whether public or private) is not the same thing as running a government body of any size or scale, so I am not suggesting your organization is headed toward revolt. But what I found valuable about Walter's data and thesis is that they provide a certain outlook on the difficulties and systemic risks when a wide range of stakeholders no longer aligns on what good looks like. HR executives today are leading and helping others lead in just such a period. While news headlines may focus on soundbites like quiet quitting, new data commissioned for this issue highlights more systemic tensions.

Over July and August of 2022, the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed nearly 1,000 HR leaders (director and above). We present the high-level results in this issue, but the headline is that only 33 percent of HR respondents say the leaders in their organizations have been successful or very successful in navigating a range of balancing acts. For nearly all organizations, adapting to the turbulence of the past two years has helped improve their skills at identifying and addressing some of the balancing acts most crucial to their success or survival. But in every major category, there is strong feedback that they must get better.

Partly in response to this data, and partly as a direct result of what our Editorial Board and we as leaders face daily, this issue features the work and thinking of a variety of top HR leaders, board members and academics. We asked them to share their insights, struggles and successes at navigating a range of balancing acts. Many of these are shorter, experiential and reflective of the pace of the changes we all face. Other pieces—including the two "In First Person" interviews—are longer and stem from deeply researched work. The blend is meant to be both real-time and reflective, practical and thought-provoking.

The messiness of leadership poses significant risks for both individuals and organizations, but the outlook is not dire. This is also a period of tremendous opportunity in the fields of HR and leadership: We get to be active participants in rethinking what "good" looks like for the 21st century. Thanks for joining the conversation, and for engaging in the work day-to-day.