SEATTLE, WA — A new study of C-suite executives has found a significant shift in executive leadership behaviour, towards greater introspection, empathy and collaboration, as a result of the disruption triggered by the pandemic and social upheaval over the past 12 months.

The findings come from WE Communications/YouGov's new Brands in Motion study, 'Rethinking the Purpose and Meaning of Leadership,' which surveyed more than 300 C-suite executives, senior level managers and key decision-makers in the United States, the UK and Singapore in January this year.

Traditionally celebrated for their boldness and confidence, for pursuing their vision with relentless focus, and for never showing doubt or uncertainty, leaders are seeing their roles change, with 86% stating they have become more introspective during this time. 

And that introspection, according to the study, has given birth to a new mindset, new behaviours, and new ways to lead — with more than half saying they have deepened their awareness of personal fears, limitations, defenses and impulses, and are working to identify gaps between their intentions and actions.

Among the key findings:

  • 89% of leaders believe purpose is becoming as important as financial results

  • 89% say engaging with issues that affect their employees is a moral obligation

  • 86% say they’ve become more introspective

  • 78% believe they must lead with greater empathy

  • 71% say articulating their personal values has become more important

  • 69% believe learning from their employees, customers and communities is critical in the coming year

  • More than half report a deeper awareness of their fears, limitations, defenses and impulses.

“Our world changed overnight and disrupted every organisation and industry worldwide,” said WE Communications global CEO and founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin. “Our research shows that our collective pandemic experience, along with other recent social upheaval, forever changed how business leaders create impact and communicate with stakeholders. Navigating in this transformed world requires a new level of introspection and vulnerability.”

As leaders come to terms with their own human vulnerability, they are becoming more open to the vulnerability of others. They’re more willing to acknowledge and address the gaps in their own experience by broadening the world of people they engage with and listen to. According to the WE survey, 78% of leaders believe that leading with empathy is more important than it was a year ago, and 74% are more committed to working collaboratively.

At the same time, amidst the anxiety and sadness, optimism and hope, leaders felt “determined" to move forward and tackle the complexities and ambiguities of the uncertain times that lie ahead. 

Covid-19, and related economic uncertainty and concurrent social unrest like BlackLivesMatter, has connected us to our common humanity and interdependence. Although the impacts of these crises haven’t been equitable, they have unlocked a deeper understanding of our responsibilities to one another, resulting in 'employee wellbeing' being rated a higher priority than 'economic outlook.'

The research also indicates a deeper shift in the ways CEOs and senior managers are listening to their employees, and their willingness to take a hard, honest look at their own behaviours and biases with 56% of leaders working to develop a deeper understanding of how their actions affect others in real time, not just retrospectively.

Leaders also reported that a broader circle of influences are playing a more significant role in their thinking than ever before. They have been influenced by social and economic issues including income inequality, gender identity, climate change, education inequalities, social justice movements on race and the struggle for human rights. This new sensitivity extends to customers and communities and has led many leaders to acknowledge systemic discrimination with greater urgency and commitment. This is particularly the case among US and UK leaders with 71% reporting that engaging with women and communities of colour is a top priority in 2021.

WE's data points to a new commitment to drive positive change through sustained action by facilitating dialogue across divided groups. Donating money was cited as one of the least effective ways to advance the issues they believe in and support the communities they serve. Instead, top priorities for leaders include investing in technology initiatives, collaborating with educational institutions, job retraining and hiring from underserved groups.

“Leaders have learned they must embrace new behaviours to meet the new expectations of the employees they depend on and the communities and customers they serve,” said Noah Keteyian, SVP of corporate reputation and brand purpose at WE Communications. "It all starts with listening — to themselves and their stakeholders — with a new vulnerability that opens up more opportunity for dialogue, understanding and positive action. If there is one critical motto for business leaders to achieve success in 2021, it is this: 'Tell me more'."