Fear not, young leaders – tumultuous times build skills for life

Originally published in the Globe & Mail March 15, 2021

No leadership case studies or textbooks could have prepared young leaders for 2020: They have been thrown into the deep end and have been asked to navigate uncharted waters, blindfolded and handcuffed, without a manual.

But these challenging times also provide an opportunity to find one’s authentic leadership voice. While doing so may feel painful in the moment, it is invaluable in these times and for the rest of your career.

On my first anniversary in the working world, I was in New York and leading my first team when terrorists flew two planes into my office’s neighboring buildings, changing the world forever. The devastation and emotional trauma caused by the acts of Sept. 11, 2001, were seemingly insurmountable. And as a young leader, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times.

Thankfully, I was under the wings of some incredible role models who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability – and I knew they had my back. I took their cues and through the hardest of days knew it was my duty to lead, despite my lack of experience in doing so. By the time we finally returned to our offices nine months later, my fellow young leaders and I resurfaced with a renewed sense of gratitude and resilience, having navigated very troubled waters.

Drawing a parallel to the present day, as difficult as it may be to get your footing as a young leader in pandemic times, we have the choice to blame circumstance for stunting our growth as leaders, or we can focus on what is in our control and embrace the opportunity afforded by the tumult.

As Chuck Saia, a senior partner at Deloitte, explores in his new book You Got This, Kid, we have a lot to learn from the animal world when it comes to leadership. Here are a few simple tips as you embark on your leadership journey:

Be the mandarin duck: Protect what makes you special: In 2018, a beautiful mandarin duck, typically not found outside of Asia, appeared in New York’s Central Park. The duck became quite the celebrity for his uniqueness and was the subject of many blog posts and news stories. But then one year later, he disappeared – no one knows why. Perhaps he tired of the attention, realizing that what made him uncompromisingly different was not a fit for the urban oasis of Central Park. Don’t compromise what makes you special as a leader: Seek out environments that will best leverage and nurture your unique attributes, as opposed to those that force you to conform.

Be the butterfly: Embrace a growth mindset and evolve: Only 10 per cent of caterpillar eggs make it through metamorphosis to the butterfly stage – with the ultimate reward of flight. At certain points in your leadership journey, it may feel as though your growth is stunted – but be patient. Like the chrysalis stage of metamorphosis, there is a lot of development “on the inside,” not apparent to outsiders, and not measured by promotion and accolades. Be open to opportunities – even the ones that appear not to contribute to your longer-term plan. A lattice (versus ladder) career path broadens leadership capability and allows you to build skills and relationships that become invaluable in the long run.

Be the armadillo: Develop a thick skin and a soft heart: Armadillos are the only living mammals with a hard shell. An attack too early in a young armadillo’s life is perilous, as the animal’s armor is not yet thick enough to protect its soft underbelly. As you develop as a young leader, many people will offer (sometimes unsolicited) opinions. It is important to quickly decipher and triage helpful constructive feedback from unproductive attacks. Balancing vulnerability and confidence is critical so that you can learn and grow, while focusing on what matters most for your own development as a leader.

Most of all, be human. If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us to be empathetic leaders, something which should not be taken for granted. We have been humbled by the amount of uncertainty we have had to navigate over the past year – even the most senior leaders do not have all of the answers. While some leadership rites of passage have been victims of the pandemic, a generation of leaders is currently experiencing the leadership training of a lifetime. Not only are they learning to lead with with curiosity and empathy – they will also set the foundation for more human leaders that genuinely care about their teams’ well-being and success in the future.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.