'Washington Crossing the Delaware' is an oil painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1851, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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You have to understand your employees.

By Ray Carvey
December 14, 2016

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What quality does every great leader have in common? is written by Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning and international at Harvard Business Publishing.

As members of an organization that has provided leadership development solutions for more than 25 years, those of us at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning are often asked what one quality or capability stands out when it comes to great leadership. In a world as complex and rapidly changing as ours, there is not any one capability that does the trick. But there are a few that will help you get to the top faster than others.

In a recent survey, we asked hundreds of managers from companies around the globe what they thought the most critical leadership capabilities were. Four stood out: demonstrating integrity, managing complexity, inspiring engagement, and acting strategically.

Two of the capabilities on the list seem, at first glance, to be evergreen. After all, leaders have always needed to demonstrate integrity and act strategically. What’s different today is how important integrity is to the millennials who now make up the largest group in the workforce. They’re a generation driven by values, demanding transparency and looking for integrity from their leaders. And, given current realities, acting strategically doesn’t mean sticking to the fine points of a five-year plan; it means nimbly responding to new opportunities while always staying aligned with the overall strategy. It also means bringing mid-level leaders, who are closer to the front line, into the strategy-formulation process in order to help identify the need for a strategic shift in the future.

See also: The One Quality That Makes a Truly Great Leader

Managing complexity and inspiring engagement are capabilities that are newer to the scene. The degree of complexity that today’s global, technologically driven organizations face was unknown a generation ago. More than ever, today’s leaders need the ability to view organizations and environments as complex, interconnected systems, and manage them as such. In complex systems, which are often seen in flatter organizations with highly interconnected parts, it’s much harder to predict outcomes.

One of our clients employs nearly 150,000 employees in 67 countries. Internally, they are structured to operate each of these different types of businesses. But externally, they have to manage different legal and political structures, a broad range of environmental and societal issues, and very diverse customer needs. So they enacted a leadership development program that helped their leaders build skills in leading under complex conditions, including assessing the complexity of a given situation, and how to respond even without definitive information.

 

Finally, employee engagement is essential to attracting and retaining great employees who, more than likely, view a company as a stepping stone, not a landing place. A Gallup report places employee engagement at 32% nationwide. And the millennial mindset is very drawn toward moving up the corporate ladder quickly, using each engagement as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop. Harvard Business Review authors Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh, and Ben Casnocha have written about the concept of “tours of duty” in the workplace: shorter-focus, targeted roles for employees based on their unique interests and skill sets, coupled with open, honest conversations about satisfaction and career development. Leaders who can embrace these new approaches to engagement can build stronger bonds between leaders and employees to build retention and boost performance.

So how do you develop these skills?

  • Acting strategically

Question your own opinions and seek out information that contradicts your view. Look to people with diverse experience to flesh out your teams, and get out of the office to gain valuable new perspectives.

  • Demonstrate integrity

Defy group think. Be selfless, and take responsibility for all of your decisions and the actions of your team. Keep an open-door policy for comments and observations, and set a good example for your team to follow.

  • Manage complexity

Keep a close eye on your environment to identify trends and indicators of potentially disruptive change. Put processes in place that help your team respond quickly, and be aware that seemingly small decisions can have a ripple effect across your business.

  • Inspire engagement

Create meaningful connections between your employees’ values and those of your organization. Understand your employees as individuals, and look for ways to tie their values and interests to their work. And foster a work environment that values inclusivity, and acceptance of the ideas of others.

There’s no doubt that as the complexities of the business world continue to evolve, the capabilities needed to drive success will evolve right along with them. But today, those leaders who can master these four key capabilities are much better positioned to harness complexity and use it to create exciting new opportunities.

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