Zabeen Hirji – The future of leadership is human

Like an enormous magnifying glass, the Coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the true character and nature of individuals, communities and nations. And, almost unequivocally, how well or how badly this crisis has been handled has been a reflection of those in positions of power and their ability to lead.

While some leaders have floundered, others have faced the pandemic decisively and with compassion. What makes some leaders struggle and others succeed in the face of unprecedented challenges? And how will this moment shape the future of leadership?

This is the topic Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor of Future of Work at Deloitte, will tackle during her talk The Future of Leadership is at an inflection point: Is this a moment or movement? happening on Feb. 3 as part of the SFU Beedie School of Business’ speaker series.

The rise of human skills

Hirji is well equipped to answer not only those questions but also to offer a compelling vision of the workplace of the future. As the former Chief Human Resources Officer at RBC, she was awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal for her work in diversity and inclusivity in the workplace in 2016.

Zabeen Hirji says that leaders have really drawn and let their humanity come to work with them. | Photo courtesy of Zabeen Hirji

“The pandemic has been a time machine to the future of work [as] it has accelerated a path that we were on already,” Hirji says.

Hirji sees the pandemic impacting how we conceive of work and the workplace in three fundamental ways. The first is in how we perceive technology with ‘machines’ coming in to enhance and support humans’ work rather than replace it. One example of this is how banks today need to employ fewer tellers but hire many more workers to do the jobs related to online banking.

The second element is the ‘rise of human skills’ – things like adaptability, creativity, collaboration curiosity, empathy, compassion – that no machine can replicate, no matter how fast or advanced because those skills ‘are all things that are uniquely human.’

The third is the re-imagining of the workplace with a hybrid model where employees have the flexibility to work both from home and from the office. One of the advantages to this is a better work/life balance and reduced commutes. Benefits for workers in jobs that can’t be done at home – approximately 60 per cent of all jobs – could include a four-day workweek and reduced rush-hour commutes.

The future of leadership

When asked to define leadership, Hirji states that leaders create a vision and communicate it compellingly. She further explains that leaders then motivate and excite people to align their activities with achieving that vision. In the same way the pandemic has accelerated the future of work, it has also forced leaders to be nimble and flexible but, above all, human.

“What we’re seeing is that leaders have really drawn and let their humanity come to work with them. And what we’re seeing is employees love it, customers love it, and I think a lot of leaders kind of enjoy it too,” Hirji reflects. “Part of why this is happening is that we have been united by this common predicament and the purpose to fight the pandemic.”

Another reason is a newfound vulnerability brought about by the fact that many leaders have had to invite their employees home via apps such as Zoom.

“Working from home, people have gotten to know their leaders a little bit more. Sometimes their kids are running around, their dogs, their cats,” she says. “They’ve been invited to their study or their kitchen and vice versa. They are more vulnerable, and they can say to people, ‘Hey, this is happening, and I don’t have the answers, but let’s try to solve it together.’”

Hirji adds that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement also has opened up leaders to acknowledge and address the systemic racism that Black, Indigenous, and other racialized Canadians have suffered professionally and in the workplace. By having these conversations, she sees leaders getting to the heart of the matter, the ‘human side.’ These are changes that she hopes will continue after the pandemic ends.

“My dream and my aspiration are that this moment is turned into a movement. Leadership is not a title; it’s actions and behaviours. And how can we, all of us collectively, really embed some of those things forever? That’s the movement that I would like to see happen,” Hirji concludes.

In addition to Hirji’s talk, the free online event will include a Q&A moderated by CTV National News’ National Affairs Correspondent Omar Sachedina. For more information and to register, please visit