The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of leadership. In a shifting and often frightening global environment, many people have looked to their leaders for guidance and support.
But what key leadership lessons have emerged? What should leaders be doing in the wake of the virus?
In exploring these questions, five key issues stand out.
1. Keep calm. Be open minded.
For many, 2020 was a year of survival, living from day-to-day and coping with frustrations beyond our control.
According to Celia Hammond, Federal Member for Curtin, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for leaders to have an open mind in the face of uncertainty. “Humility and openness to the ideas/opinions/views of others (particularly but not limited to those with expertise) and being prepared to change course or approach as and when required - are not signs of weakness – rather are evidence of a strong, intelligent and capable leader.”
She states that “the strongest political leaders over the past nine months have been those who have put aside political rhetoric/polemics and the ‘politics as normal’ approach, and have been direct and openly engaged with others – and explained the reasons as to their decisions and actions.”
This need for leadership flexibility is echoed by Dr Vita Akstinaite, a leadership specialist at the Murdoch Business School. The “COVID-19 pandemic [has] evidenced the need for a more adaptive leadership approach for all organisations,” she said.
The pandemic has thrown leaders into the spotlight, exposing remarkable people with an open mind and cool, self-control. It also revealed pseudo-leaders; people in leadership roles able to talk a good game but unable to cope.
Business Psychologist, Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg noted in the Harvard Business Review in August, that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much about organisations and the people who lead them. “The leaders I talk to report that they have learned so much new about themselves and their closest colleagues: Who rises to the occasion, who loses faith, who supports, who snaps, who dares, who falls silent — and how do these behaviours evolve as the crisis unfolds?”
2. The digital age has arrived.
2020 also saw leadership truly enter the digital age. It was a year where ‘working from home’ stopped being seen by many as code for ‘taking a day off.’ And it was the year where the expression “you’re on mute” was uttered constantly in kitchens and home offices around the world.
Dr Akstinaite states “COVID-19 has accelerated organisational digitalization processes, moving teams to work in a virtual environment and triggering the need for many companies to quickly implement digital workflows to ensure that the production and sales could continue.”
Numerous organisations swiftly set-up remote digital work practices and laptop sales surged. Many discovered the newfound freedom of being able to work in sweatpants in the comfort of their own homes. And businesses woke-up to the cost savings to be gained from remote work practices.
Yet the sudden shift presented new challenges for leaders. The pandemic became a scourge for micro-managers and showed that a little more freedom could actually improve productivity. Meetings changed as managers could no longer be sure that their audience were even pretending to listen to their rousing speeches. And control quickly became a matter of faith.
In most cases, leaders learned by doing, though any management shortcomings were also cruelly exposed.
3. Great leaders care for others.
Though many have enjoyed working remotely, the digital shift has come at a cost. While some relished the isolation, many have struggled, finding themselves alone and trying to cope with uncertainty and loss.
The pandemic has claimed lives. It has brought job losses and isolation. And for many, it has heightened stress levels, fear, exhaustion and anxiety.
Rarely has leadership been so important. For Professor Maryam Omari, Executive Dean at the ECU Business Faculty, leaders are there to “take care of the people first and foremost. [They] walk around, ask them about how they and their families are going, show them that they are a person and not a number and the leaders genuinely care about them.”
At multinational services firm, Ernst and Young, Joe Dettmann, Micah Alpern, and Jeff Stier assert that COVID-19 has reminded leaders of a real need to show honesty and care for those around them. “Through all the noise being put out there about how to lead through a crisis, it is important to focus on the guidance that is actionable.”
According to Lui Pangiarella, co-founder of search fund accelerator Second Squared, “One-way communication is not enough. Whilst once (a long time ago) it was enough to keep people “informed” there has been a social change ,people want the opportunity to be heard and/or contribute to the discussion (even if it is again, just their opinions).”
For multinational services network Deloitte, COVID-19 has reminded leaders of the need to practice resilient care. Pooling the views of business executives, the firm pinpointed the need for resilient leadership tempered with compassion. “Resilient leaders are genuinely, sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems. Yet resilient leaders must simultaneously take a hard, rational line to protect financial performance from the invariable softness that accompanies such disruptions.”
COVID-19 has clearly taught us why we need our leaders’ support.
4. Training and education are needed.
Perhaps one of the most important leadership lessons from the pandemic has been our overall level of unpreparedness; though some coped better than others.
The speed in which COVID-19 spread put many on the back foot and triggered an initial panic. Almost overnight, organisational leaders found themselves scrambling to shift operations online, reassure staff and keep the lights on.
With no clear understanding as to what was happening and when normality might return, decision-makers worked tirelessly to try and keep their organisations afloat.
For Dr Akstinaite, the pandemic highlighted a need for greater organisational resilience through widespread training and development. Dr Akstinaite asserts that “successful work through the pandemic required leaders to develop the skills and competencies of their people, to become more agile, adaptive and flexible.”
5. Leaders see a world of possibilities.
Yet in the midst of the doom and gloom created by the virus, Professor Omari strikes a note of optimism. For though the situation may remain bleak, leaders must believe in a better day. Leaders should offer hope and by building a cohesive team of like-minded people, great things can be achieved.
“Challenges bring with them opportunities, but you need to have the right people to see beyond the immediate and start planning for the next step. Challenges can bring people together and further strengthen an already good organisational climate and culture.”
This article was prepared by Dr Simon Minaee at the Murdoch Business School and looks at leadership in the wake of COVID-19. In developing and delivering undergraduate and postgraduate leadership learning experiences, Murdoch University prides itself on continuously engaging with leaders, thinkers and specialists around the globe and across institutions. We work to ensure that leadership learning at Murdoch is professional, practical and relevant to today's working environment.