Business Transformation

For Leaders, The Central Problem of 2021 was a Lack of Centering

Consider this thought: As leaders, as organizations, we’re doing too much. A related and more troubling thought: Many leaders have in fact lost our way. 

Far from speculation, according to a number of studies those are among the dominant themes of the last year. As leaders close out the current year and look towards the next, these findings are critical to understand and absorb.

A Shot Across the Bow for Leaders

One of the most revealing studies of the past year was conducted by LinkedIn and Microsoft and released last spring. For it, more than 30,000 people, at all levels of work, and across the globe were surveyed. A number of trends clearly emerged. Four stand out – important not simply for what they say on their own, but what they tell us when viewed together:

  • “Flexible work is here to stay.”
  • “High productivity is masking an exhausted work force.”
  • “Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.”
  • “Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing.”
  1. Flexible work is here to stay. The first trend directly reflects the circumstances of the past two years. Our teams and our lives have been upended from their old patterns. We’ve had to quickly become flexible – flexible in where we work, how we get things done, even in how we think to degrees not known in the past. Most telling, rather than become flexible one time to address one form of uncertainty, we’ve had to do so repeatedly. Adaptability, not as a task, but a strategic imperative, has become the coin of the realm for thriving in uncertain times.
  2. High productivity is masking an exhausted work force. Many organizations and their leaders have done a remarkable job of transforming themselves to be productive in this new abnormal. But doing so repeatedly is taking its toll. We are, in a word, exhausted. That hasn’t stopped leaders from piling on demands of their teams – to keep redefining work, to move faster to recover lost productivity over the past 20 months, and to innovate and create new value even as we struggle simply to sustain. The ceaseless dynamic is causing employees to question, even to leave. Leaders can’t help but know, and yet they seem not to have registered the implications. Which results in trend number three… 
  3. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call. A striking McKinsey & Company study released in July of 2021 shed further light in the LinkedIn-Microsoft study. Of the more than 500 executives asked about the future of work, more than three quarters spoke confidently of an imminent return to normalcy and more, of an expectation of that new normal lasting far into the future. McKinsey called it a ‘finish line’ mentality. It’s a breathtaking, even perplexing view given the deeply uncertain environment. But, 75% of the 5,000 employees surveyed weren’t buying it. Not only did they disagree with their leaders’ assessments about the future, they expressed a lack of confidence in their leaders overall. What then could be the way forward? The fourth finding makes this clear.
  4. Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing. As leaders, as organizations, we’re making a vital mistake at the very moment we’re doing too much, pushing too hard, and moving ever closer to the brink: We’re losing our sense of who we are. What is it we stand for, not just in one hectic moment or another, but overall, long-term, and bigger picture? Many teams no longer know. And without that knowledge, productivity and wellbeing are at best limited, but more truthfully, slipping further from our grasp.

What then should leaders do?

Navigating the Way Forward

While the trends clearly point to the ‘problem side’ of the issue, they also signal a ‘solution side.’ In times as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous as these, our lens can become foggy. Allowing it to stay that way, is precisely what muddies up our decision-making, and removes the clarity about where we invest our time and resources. What we need, now more than ever, is centering. Three steps stand out.

  • Center yourself. As a leader, before anything else, you must center yourself. Those thriving in the current uncertainty call it knowing your soul. What they mean is that, to be an effective leader, you must have a conscious awareness of who you are – your identity, but more precisely, who you are in the context of what you do as the leader, and how what you do connects to and impacts others. It sounds simple. Yet sadly, most leaders have at best a surface sense of this. As the commander, they only command. Knowing your soul is fundamentally about enabling yourself to bring your best. 
  • Center the organization. Teams and organizations need a center too, something often referred to as a shared purpose. In study after study, people up and down the organizational ladder acknowledge the value. Yet even when organizations have a shared purpose, scant few actually use it. Leaders play the pivotal role here. They must first ensure a shared purpose exists. If they are wise, they allow the entire team to play a role in defining it. Most of all, they need to put it to use, asking and empowering every person, every day, to employ shared purpose as a litmus test for every decision and action. This is how you sort out what’s of consequence versus what can be set aside, for now, even for good.
  • Make centering a cultural priority. Uncertainty is challenging. It’s also distracting. We get busy. Increasingly, we get panicky. When we do, we forget what matters most, and we lose our way. That’s why the act of centering must become cultural, in the sense of being ever-present. In uncertain times, it’s the only way to stay on course.

If centering isn’t the very first act, always, it’s just too easy to lose your way. When you lose your way, you start to see trends like those of the past year. Unaddressed, those vulnerabilities pick up speed, creating their own special kind of pandemic. It’s a course no leader, no organization, no leader can afford. Centering raises the odds you won’t have to.


Written by Larry Robertson.

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Larry Robertson
Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes, and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership, and entrepreneurship. As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for three decades guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. In 2021, he was named a Fulbright Scholar, a rarity for a non-academic professional. He is the author of three award-winning books: The Language Of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity and A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress, and his third and newest book, Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. His books have been mentioned in the CEOWORLD magazine Best Books List for 2021.


Larry Robertson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.