Going deeper: Why the future of leadership is beneath the surface

Viewed in Spencer Stuart

What are your “beneath the surface” leadership traits?

It may not be a question you are asked routinely, if ever. But there are such traits, and Chicago-based management consulting and executive search firm Spencer Stuart addresses them in this intriguing new report.

Working harder and faster

It turns out your beneath the surface skills are more important than ever, especially for chief executive officers and top corporate executives. Prior to the pandemic, corporate leaders were finding “that their organizations couldn’t move quickly enough, and plans didn’t produce expected results,” Spencer Stuart argues.

The result was that “people at all levels were working harder and feeling over-stretched, out of balance, and less engaged and inspired by their work than before,” the firm reports.

Enter the “beneath the surface” leadership traits, now in great demand at high levels of corporate structures.

Creating synergies and teamwork

These skills are ultimately most associated with a leader’s ability to take a broad number of highly skilled professionals, which exist in most corporate organizations, and bring the leadership skills necessary to create all of the organizational synergies and teamwork that ultimately is necessary to leverage all this skill broadly distributed throughout organizations.

These beneath the surface skills should be assessed and understood on individual, team, and organization-wide levels.

Intuition, instincts, feelings and values

Facing new post-pandemic challenges that are both significant and ever-evolving, “beneath the surface attributes like intuition, instincts, feelings and values,” are important to both assess and manage, this report concludes.

Of course, inherent in being “beneath the surface” skills, they are not immediately obvious and certainly more challenging to asses than traditional skills.

Empathy and humility fostering engagement and connection

The importance of these attributes surfaced by necessity these past two years as leaders “discovered that empathy and humility helped them connect better with people in a moment of crisis and keep the organization engaged and aligned amid disruption—even as they had to rely on virtual communication tools,” Spencer Stuart contends.

Three levels: individual, team, organization

Examples of these beneath the surface skills should be assessed on three levels: individuals, teams, and entire organizations. Among individual leaders, each has their respective capabilities, which are typically broadly known and understood. But beneath these relatively obvious personal capabilities are ones increasingly vital but less obvious, including their capacity and character.

Dynamics and trust

Second, for organizational teams, two things are similarly identifiable: the composition and formal objectives of these teams. But beneath these obvious team characteristics, beneath the surface skills are the dynamics and trust within these teams.  

Purpose and culture

Finally, for entire corporate organizational structures, the structure and strategy of an organization also is easily identifiable and usually readily available in corporate documents—sometimes even public ones, like the company’s public filings with regulatory agencies or its internal or external communication vehicles like their internal and corporate websites.

Less known for organizational skills again are skills that exist beneath the surfaces, including the ultimate purpose and culture of these organizations.

The starting point to pass turbulences and seize opportunities

It is vital, especially in today’s turbulent and ever-evolving business environment, that leaders look deeper to grasp these beneath the surface skills and understand where they exist and where they may be deficient because the typical post-pandemic corporate organization now looks poised by necessity to operate in more agile, less traditional ways.

Identifying these skills on the individual, team, and organizational level ultimately serves as the starting point for studied managerial flexibility, permitting individuals, teams, and entire organizations to be enhanced, improved and adjusted in studied and effective ways as necessary to meet turbulent and ever-changing challenges and opportunities within them.    

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