"So can we wear jeans now? "

Said nobody ever in Corporate. Until one day, somebody did.

Johannesburg, 29 June 2021: I was a provincial swimmer. Long before suits and heels and boardrooms, I swam for KZN and I loved every minute of it. What I probably loved the most about professional swimming was the discipline it came with; the routine of daily training, the precision of the strokes and the obsessive drive to beat the clock every time the gun went off. Turns out, working in Corporate is no different.

Fast forward a decade or so (pre-2020), and I’m a sucker for authority, for predictability, for structure, for employee discipline and for beating the clock. My days are all safely the same; I’m focused on the bottom line, I’m gunning for the finish line and I’m at work the same time, with the same suit (different colour though) every single day. As a certified corporate animal, I was pretty sorted in my drywall bubble of codes of conduct. Until the world went bang – and I only needed one code – and that was the passcode to log in.

Wait, a what?

Coming from a routine backdrop, I was not okay with this change to my corporate algorithm. A passcode and slippers were not my idea of a team meeting. For months I grappled with the concept of casual wear in EXCO – and don’t get me started on camera on camera off. The unpredictability of it all drove me nuts. I even started zoom stalking my team (safe space, right?!) calling them randomly during the workday, just to check they were dressed appropriately for the ‘office’. Nuts! But as corporate chiefs, we’re all guilty of it.  

Traditional corporate environments have long since dictated that control equals structure equals power equals results. We’ve come to learn the order of the day is to make our people “obey”. 

By the time most of us had overcome our fear of mute and were summoned back to the real boardroom in late 2020, take a guess who walked into the office wearing a pair of jeans? Me.

“Oh, so are we allowed to wear jeans now?” 

These were the words slung by my receptionist. I was confused, because, to tell you the truth, after all these months in remote confinement I hadn’t given it a second thought. I wasn’t quite sure if she was scolding me or challenging me. She wasn’t doing either – in fact, in that moment (me, staring at my jeans) she was teaching me; teaching me the real truth about leading a company.  

And this is what I learnt: real leadership doesn’t dictate. It listens. Real leadership isn’t finite, its fluid. It shifts, it tweaks, it adapts, sometimes it even changes hangers. And the reason why most of us in the year 2021, aren’t adopting ‘real leadership’ – is because we’re structure-stuck and afraid of flexibility. And flexibility …. is code for ‘change’.        

That word – change. Change is the precursor to transformation and transformation is terrifying and overwhelming. We trip up, perhaps, because we believe that transformation is in the paperwork, the ceremony, the pomp, the brag wall, the big announcement. It’s not. It doesn’t have to be a freestyle flip turn. It can be jeans on a Tuesday.

The real trick of the trade is to meet your people in the middle. To lead each other towards transformation, and to do it slowly; to adapt little by little.

In our current COVID-19 climate, we’ve witnessed hierarchies and traditional systems breaking down because political Leaders have for too long denied the opportunities for change – fearing the rise of chaos, disrespect and insubordination. A control freak’s nightmare and I guess, I was there too.

True change can only come about if we give ourselves and our teams permission to adapt; to spend time tweaking the system, not revolting against it.

As business leaders, its high time we reframe our idea of leadership – what it looks like, what it feels like and mostly, what it dresses like. Change forces us to take notice of the rules and adjust to them, to shift perspective, to reimagine our workforce and our value systems. Because we’re all a little new at this, and a little vulnerable and a little afraid – and a little keen to wear jeans! Ultimately, we’re all human first and we’re in this leadership thing together.  

If we want to build a company culture that matters – it’s not about the rules anymore. It’s about finding fluidity in the facts and recalibration in the clauses. It’s time for us to acknowledge that volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguousness is the new work leader – and let me tell you, she still looks smart from where I sit.   

Disclaimer: my answer was “yes” by the way. We can wear jeans.

THE TOWER GROUP

OP:ED BY CEO, KERRY MORRIS

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