More than a year has passed since we found ourselves in this crisis. The pandemic has taught us all to be humble and patient, giving leaders a unique opportunity to prove they deserve to be called that.
In an interview she gave last September, Melinda Gates said: “This pandemic has magnified every existing inequality in our society – like systemic racism, gender inequality, and poverty.” By analogy, her remark can be used to identify the leadership practices that have failed, caused harm, or proven to be ineffective during covid. The pandemic showed how thoroughly contrary to human nature are leadership styles can be with leaders separating themselves from those they lead and posing as know-it-alls. During the crisis, we have found it makes no sense to manage people without empathy and dialogue. Once the pandemic ends, we will need to fundamentally transform our old habits. As Larry Clark from Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning put it: “To achieve long-term success, organizations will need to lead through uncertainty, cultivate trust and reskill for the future to close the leadership gap that emerged due to Covid-19.”
The end of autocratism
The circumstances we are in have shown that transactional autocratic leadership (which has long lost its allure as a model in our culture) is doomed to fail. When employees work remotely and remain “out of reach”, the carrot-and-stick approach to managing them won’t work all that well. Even staunch advocates of maximum control admit that, by its very nature, supervision over remote workers can only be limited. While, admittedly, some of us know of cases where managers seeking to retain a semblance of control require workers to regularly check in with them online, even such oversight quickly turns out to be an illusion and is eventually abandoned. And yet, I might add that although the autocratic leadership style is quickly becoming passe, there are organizations that can benefit from it to an extent. Autocratism enables their executives to respond to crises swiftly and decisively when there is no time to seek compromises or hear people’s arguments. However, this can only work in unique conditions, such as with teams whose duties are strictly defined and largely repetitive.
Accelerated digitization can hurt
Even the managers who had practiced transformational leadership that relies on communication between the leader and the team and on partnership-based cooperation and trust have had to face up to the pandemic crisis. Although the supporters of such an approach may well have been more calm and collected about covid challenges, even they were not entirely spared the related troubles. The managers who derive their energy from face-to-face interactions might have found management by Zoom and remote apps to be daunting. Not all leaders, not even the outstanding ones, have done well with this model. Digital isolation and Zoom fatigue, defined as exhaustion caused by endless teleconferencing, take their toll. As noted by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in HBR, it takes a great deal more focus and effort to absorb information at video meetings than it does during in-person encounters. People tend to perceive the apparent proximity of their interlocutors as a breach of their comfort zone. That and the constant checking of one’s appearance in the video window will drain anyone’s mental resources. Not to mention household members sneaking into cam view and our simultaneous reading of e-mails, texts and social media posts. As Jeremy Bailenson, professor and founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab put it, “Technology can disrupt complex methods of interpersonal communication that have been finely tuned over the centuries to help people survive.” Therefore, while digitization deserves appreciation, it is vital to keep a watchful eye on the effects of heavy use of technology.
Uncontrolled emotions are a bad advisor
Even before everyone grew accustomed to it, the pandemic crisis could evoke either of the two opposing responses in people at the helm of their companies. One was nervousness in the face of uncertainty. This could result in ill-considered choices, using the pandemic to justify layoffs, etc. As is well known, fear is a bad advisor and those unable to get a handle on their anxiety end up failing on many fronts. They fail to prove themselves in the eyes of their team and to earn the trust of the C-suite. On the other extreme lies the approach of embracing the necessary change and maintaining composure. Mature leaders who are in touch with their emotions are more likely to get through the crisis unscathed. The ability to stop and reflect allows them to assess the situation from a distance and make better choices. Let us examine the latter approach and the attributes of the winner in the fight against the pandemic. Here are the key qualities and approaches of an effective leader, as observed over the previous year:
- #vulnerability Leaders choose to stop acting as though they know it all and no longer dismiss other people’s opinions. They explore new solutions and come up with ideas while encouraging others to share theirs. Most importantly, they do not pretend to be more comfortable than other people. They use their admission of ignorance and vulnerability to the team as a way to earn their trust and appreciation as leaders. None of this is possible without candid talks. Clear communication with others that is as direct as possible has never been more in demand than in recent months and has never produced such good results. It is not without good reason that during the pandemic, the concept of “vulnerability” championed by Brene Brown, and others, has gained so much popularity.
- #resilience In the face of uncertainty, effective leaders avoid the temptation to persistently cling to a decision they have made and allow themselves the latitude to change their minds. They have had to react quickly to new information and guidelines from the top of the company. Before the pandemic, we often spoke of flexibility in running an organization. In a pandemic, resilience replaces flexibility at the fore. This requires that both leaders and employees act out of self-confidence, think positively, remain flexible in the face of challenges and persevere. It is equally important that they self-distance, learn continuously, restore their life energy and relax when needed.
- #empathy The line between work and personal life gets blurred. It is hard to deny that with children’s voices coming through in the background of a video presentation. Leaders are no better off than their team members. They too have personal lives, families, children and personal problems on their minds. This sense of shared experience breeds human empathy. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that never before has basic human empathy been so crucial to relations across different levels in hierarchy. If sustained going forward, this would be one of the biggest benefits of the pandemic.
- #humancentricity The pandemic has shown that true leaders do more than assign tasks. Their job is to guide people in making full use of their talent and potential. At the time when companies are forced to reassess their key goals, faced with a prospect of an vague crisis looming, it seems hard to focus on people and discover their capabilities. And yet, quite the opposite has turned out to be true: this was actually the time to build positive relationships with employees and instill a sense of comfort and mental fortitude. Numerous publications (including some in The Lancet) show that isolation is wreaking havoc with people’s mental condition: they end up low-spirited, develop sleep disorders and sink into depression. Under such circumstances, leaders’ main job is to take a human interest in workers and establish a personal relationship, even if only online. This motivates people to work and maintain mutual trust within teams.
- #digitalworkplace Remote work, at times morphed into hybrid employment, has become one of the most eye-opening experiences in management history. Many companies and leaders realize that a large proportion of their workers will not want to go back to the five-days-a-week office-work model. Hence, leaders are not even planning a return to the old approach. Instead, they must hone the skills they began to pick up during the pandemic. The ability to remotely manage a team by means of technology turns out to be the new standard. The “digital workplace” is upon us.
Has a qualitative change in leadership practices and perceptions really been brought about by the pandemic? I believe it has. We have learned several lessons here. One of them is that success in the post-pandemic world goes to the people who can cope with uncertainty, remain calm, and make the right decisions in the face of the unknown. They must not forget about their people and their needs.
There is a good chance that the changes described above are here to stay. And that it will be neither possible nor sensible to return to the old ways of management and cooperation. If and when the pandemic fades away, it is worth seriously considering what good it has brought us and which part of it should be treasured and kept. This would be the best closure to this peculiar pandemic experience.
- Engaged communication: Potential risks and rewards communicating socially relevant topics
- The reports of the blog’s death are greatly exaggerated
- Humor in communication. How to make customers laugh without losing credibility
- Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a ruse?
Alexander, A., De Smet, A., & Weiss, L. (2020). Decision making in uncertain times. McKinsey Quarterly Magazine [Internet]. https://www. mckinsey. com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/decision-making-in-uncertain-times (2020, accessed 20 July 2020 Jul 20) Google Scholar.
D’Auria, G., Nielsen, N. C., & Zolley, S. (2020). Tuning in, turning outward: Cultivating compassionate leadership in a crisis.
Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review, 29.
Stefan, T., & Nazarov, A. D. (2020, November). Challenges and competencies of leadership in Covid-19 Pandemic. In Research technologies of pandemic coronavirus impact (RTCOV 2020) (pp. 518-524). Atlantis Press.