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In an era of crisis and transformation, leadership must adapt. It is increasingly about emotional intelligence and empathy, rather than just command and control. In short, it’s more about leadership than management. In an interview, Konrad Holleis, Head of Executive Education at WU Executive Academy, discusses new leadership approaches and debunks the most common myths encountered during his eight years at the WU Executive Academy.
Times are changing. Though this statement rings true for any era, certain periods are marked by more rapid and profound transformations. “Today’s world has become less predictable, especially in the past 15 years,” says Konrad Holleis, Head of Executive Education at WU Executive Academy. “We seem to live in a world of endless crises.” He reflects on the series of challenges faced globally: the financial crisis in 2009, the European refugee crisis beginning in 2015, political upheavals like Brexit, the global health crisis in 2020, the supply chain crisis in 2021 (with the Evergreen ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal), and since 2022, the Ukraine war and the energy crisis, followed by an inflation crisis, and now geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East.
This state of things has significantly impacted leadership requirements. “Apart from the crises, consider digitization and rapid changes in various spheres; and the younger generation which is growing up with values different from previous generations,” comments Holleis. Thus, times call for new leaders that are adaptable and flexible, that can navigate a constantly changing business environment.
“New leadership is not a static concept,” Holleis explains, “the term has been in use for almost 40 years now. Even back then, it was recognized that traditional leadership methods – specifically, the command and control approach – were not effective in addressing the challenges faced by modern organizations.” Over the past four decades, extensive research has been conducted on leadership styles, whereby new leadership is a synthesis of various modern leadership approaches that encompasses positive, agile, transformational, and responsible leadership. “It’s not about adhering to a fixed set of skills that never evolve. Instead, it’s about continuously adjusting and adapting,” Holleis states. “That is what we see as our main responsibility at the Executive Academy. We prepare leaders for this dynamic environment through our education programs including MBAs, compact educational courses, and customized leadership programs for organizations.”
As part of this focus, certain myths about new leadership need to be debunked. Through numerous conversations, especially when discussing with organizations about their expectations of leaders, Holleis has gleaned some key insights. He sees addressing and dispelling these myths as an integral part of the Executive Academy’s approach to their courses. “As a business school, we see our responsibility as bridging theory and practice, and connecting research with the business world,” he notes.
The days when it was acceptable for leaders to be choleric, to send passive-aggressive messages, or to shout in the office are definitely over.
One common myth Holleis often encounters about leadership is the belief that being a ‘new leader’ merely involves being soft and nice. “Yes, treating employees with respect is absolutely essential,” he says, “the days when it was acceptable for leaders to be choleric, to send passive-aggressive messages, or to shout in the office are definitely over.” However, being respectful doesn’t preclude a leader from focusing on results or working towards clear, specific goals with their employees. For Holleis, it’s not contradictory to be kind and respectful while still maintaining a results-oriented approach and making tough decisions when necessary.
Another myth he frequently comes across is that new leadership equates to less leadership, in the sense of a laissez-faire style where employees are left entirely to their own devices. “While this approach might work in certain situations, especially with highly specialized experts, new leadership is generally about being proactive,” Holleis explains. “It involves working collaboratively with employees, investing time in their development, identifying and nurturing their strengths.” This approach, he argues, is increasingly expected by newer generations, such as Gen Z and partly Gen Y, as they expect leaders to recognize them as individuals, to see the human behind the colleague, and to foster a culture of teamwork and inclusion. “If you, as a leader, are able to communicate a clear vision that is anchored in a meaningful purpose, you’ll find that your employees are much more motivated,” he explains. When there’s a strong sense of purpose, discussions around four-day-week or unrealistic salary expectations become less prominent. “Many young people today are seeking more than just a job; they want their work to have a purpose,” says Holleis, “and it’s the responsibility of leaders to effectively communicate this.”
In summary, new leadership demands emotional intelligence, empathy, and a focus on collaboration to empower team members, build strong relationships, and foster a positive work culture. In short, it’s about keeping what makes us human in the face of the digital era.
Needless to say, as a new leader, it’s crucial to be open to new technologies. But, often, people fear them because they can change the way things have always been done, it might challenge people’s authority or disrupt their established business models. Regardless, one can try to run from change and towards status quo, but not hide from it. Consider the digital shift during the pandemic: The transition from office to remote work made leadership more challenging, as leaders had to consider how to keep their team engaged and motivate employees who are working remotely. “These were new challenges that hadn’t been faced before, at least not this strongly. So, there is value in focusing on the positive aspects of new technologies, like the improved collaboration tools and the potential for a better work-life balance for both leaders and employees,” says Holleis. He recalls a recent presentation by a major software company showcasing a tool that could take a lengthy annual report, about 150 pages, and summarize it into a presentation with slides and lecture notes, all within minutes – a task that used to take days. “This is a prime example of how new technologies can simplify our daily tasks,” he concludes.
But this optimism comes with a caveat. “We have to act responsibly when implementing new technologies, especially concerning issues like privacy, data protection, and environmental impact.” Here, digital humanism provides a valuable framework and guidelines for responsibly approaching new technologies. “In our educational programs, we teach a responsible approach to new technologies and include questions of digital humanism. In our MBA program in digital transformation and data science, for example, we teach how to strategically leverage new technologies while keeping ethical questions in mind at the same time.”
One can pose the question if new technologies, with generative AI shining as their North Star, come with their own novel set of myths. “It is too soon to say,” answers Holleis. “My spontaneous thought is that perhaps in the future, the myth will be that AI allows leaders to take more vacations. While there’s a positive aspect to this – considering how overbooked most leaders’ schedules are –, it would be even more beneficial to invest this time in team development and employee engagement.”
This notion segues into the broader challenge of predicting AI’s future impact. A mere year ago, ChatGPT was barely known, but today it’s an integral part of our technological landscape, evolving at a rapid pace. “A few years ago, there were predictions that AI might render certain skilled professions, like lawyers, unnecessary due to its ability to efficiently summarize cases and conduct research,” Holleis remembers, “this has not happened.” Echoing a widely acknowledged perspective, he adds, “jobs involving human interaction will always be vital. Interaction is crucial not just personally but also in business. Human-to-human communication is what motivates us, gives us strength, builds community and relationships.”
This insight naturally leads to a discussion on the role of leadership in the context of human interaction. Leadership is typically associated with a people orientation, focusing on inspiring and influencing others to achieve a shared vision or goal. It involves recognizing individual strengths in employees and fostering their development, as well as creating a collaborative culture where leaders work with employees on an equal footing. Management, on the other hand, is traditionally associated with task orientation, involving planning, organizing, controlling resources, and overseeing day-to-day operations and processes. “Every manager or leader has both management and leadership tasks,” says Holleis. “The management tasks are somewhat inherent to the role, as they come automatically with the job. However, it’s crucial to consciously focus on the leadership aspect, as this doesn’t happen by default.” This is why making a clear distinction between the two is important.
In light of these, as advice for the aspiring new leaders, Holleis recommends: “Be courageous. Try new things. Be open to continuous learning. Meet your colleagues at eye level. Be open to identify strengths in your colleagues and develop them, and try to have a positive impact on the lives of your employees. And most of all, enjoy the ride.”
Konrad Holleis is the Head of Executive Education at WU Executive Academy, a role he has held since May 2023. Previously, he led the academy’s Custom Programs and has experience as an Academic Advisor and Director of Study Abroad Programs at Salzburg College GmbH. Holleis holds a Master’s degree in English and American Studies from the University of Vienna.
Photos: Gianmaria Gava