The new leaders - getting beyond the cult of charisma

Classic leadership skills may not be optimal in a more distributed workplace, says Michael Swinsburg from Alexander Hughes.

Do virtual and face-to-face environments favour different leadership styles?


Working remotely has offered us some real-life experimentation that we can learn from.  Classic leadership skills, typical in a face-to-face centralised head office, may not be optimal in a more distributed workplace - be it virtually, geographically, or some hybrid.

Confidence is often overconfidence when it comes to many A-type personalities. A high IQ and extroversion may not be enough in a distributed workplace. Conversations I've had during the pandemic show that effective emerging leaders appear to be the 'doers', not the big 'talkers'. They are also keen listeners, organised and reliable types, taking on informal leadership roles.  

These practical, results-focussed, and sometimes quieter voices have become attractive and are standing out against larger personalities. We all want to be productive, so we may gravitate to the reliable, well-organised types. 

Senior leaders have always thrived in the face-to-face world, relying on the 'drop in' conversations and the visual cues. Many of us now recognise that we must fully embrace the myriad of virtual collaboration tools to keep up with our teams.


What do distributed office leaders look like?


A study from Drake University in the USA researched two pathways for emerging leaders - achievements based on their behaviours or ascription of their traits across low to high virtual contexts.  

The surprise was not the results but the timing of the research coming from the pre-pandemic lockdown back in 2019.  Feels like a decade ago! The study focussed on emerging leaders - those perceived as leaders in a peer-based team and whose influence was willingly accepted. It tracked over 200 four-person teams across face-to-face, hybrid and virtual groups.

The face-to-face teams chose individuals based more on the ascription of their leaders' traits, while the virtual teams ignored the 'cult of charisma' assessing their emerging leaders on their achievements. The virtual setting would appear to be a harsher judge of leaders by placing more weight on results!

Meanwhile, the face-to-face preferring, gregarious leaders should know they can also be successful virtual team leaders by adjusting to a more hands-on delivery approach.  

This study shows us that a future distributed model may require broader thinking about leadership development and who we perceive as effective leaders.

Well organised distributed work will be a leading differentiator to attract and retain the best talent in the knowledge sector.

Is virtual more democratic than face-to-face? If so, is this is because we are all equally visible on the screen thereby tacitly expecting attention?


With face-to-face, it can often be the loudest voices in the room that are listened to. We know we need to ensure that quieter voices are encouraged and heard.

It appears anecdotally and from the research that many virtual meetings are often more democratic. No one wants to leave anyone isolated as we focus on maintaining team cohesion and health.  

Many leaders I've spoken to also point to greater inclusion through opportunities to reach more stakeholders for decision making who might not otherwise be available to meet face to face. 


What are the pros and cons of distributed working? 

Plenty of research and our conversations with the C-suite leaders confirm that most people prefer a balance of office and working from home. The consensus appears to be landing on 3 days in and 2 days out.

The IT, professional, and financial services sectors appear well advanced with the distributed workplace - recognising the opportunity to improve diversity and inclusion.  

The challenges have been canvassed widely with key concerns including maintaining organisational culture, capturing innovation, employee development and career growth, and mental health wellbeing.   

We hear that while most find WFH refreshing, some can feel lonely. Office camaraderie is often the top reason to return to the office. Managers, extroverts, and those with good team dynamics felt lonelier. The introverts were less concerned - maybe they preferred some solitude. 

Those happiest with WFH had some independent consulting experience where they were forced to build the office connections to people, to purpose, to place, and to routine.

These office connections are often bundled imperfectly and taken for granted. We now realise that building connections intentionally takes real effort.

A casual chat may need planning and ends up as all-day 'zoom doom' that reminds us what we are missing. Plenty of research has been and will continue to be done here.  I see it, as with most pandemic trends, the rate of change has simply increased.  The distributed office and was happening already - it has simply become more mainstream faster. We rushed into all this in March 2020 and copied the office over - it's clumsy! We can now build a more sustainable, distributed workplace. 

A recent KPMG report concludes "different capabilities are required to lead and manage workforces that you can't physically see (and are) working at different times and places." Many suggest we need to start with strengthening culture, clarifying purpose, and investing more in leadership development to handle greater complexity. 

The upshot is where organisations need a deeper understanding of performance levers that are outputs-focused, then revisiting the firm's purpose will assist. Also critical is deeper connections - intentionally building stronger connections with direct reports and across teams to support their engagement, development and career progression. 

Finally, organisations need to encourage accountability for wellness, connectedness, and self-direction - this should be on all management meeting agendas.

Overall, we will need to perfect the skills of managing while walking around the distributed office. This will require strong digital and face-to-face communications skills along with plenty of empathy.

The pandemic has allowed us to build back better by reimaging the workplace. We must do better than industrial age, centralised HQs with branch offices often seen as poor cousins while those who were 'allowed' to do WFH were often forgotten or even sometimes sadly mistrusted.

Talented 21st-century knowledge workers are global and expect much more. We prided ourselves on how quickly we could sprint to WFH.


Now let us seize the opportunity to run the marathon to a more sustainable workplace. This is a new opportunity to attract and retain the best talent and build back stronger, more purposeful, and effective teams.