Keeping employees focused and engaged is no easy task on a typical day. But doing so during a global pandemic like COVID-19 is an altogether different ball game. Not only were employees forced to adapt to remote work almost overnight – away from the usual channels of collaboration – but the gnawing uncertainty of tomorrow is also making them anxious and prone to depression.
So, what does effective leadership look like in the post-COVID world? There’s no playbook for effective leadership, but the golden rule of thumb -- aptly illustrated in the widely acclaimed book What Happens Now? -- remains unchanged, even in the face of the current pandemic.[i] It says that all leaders, even highly successful ones, must constantly reinvent and change themselves or risk being outrun by their businesses.
In this article, we’ll explore the leadership styles best suited for today and list proven best practices regarding what leaders should do to successfully navigate disruptions.
COVID-19: A Litmus Test for Leadership
A recently launched Leadership Confidence Index revealed that the confidence level among the current leadership of corporations is very low. Only 15% of global business executives have confidence in their current leadership to successfully manage disruption.[ii] This statistic is disturbing -- even for the most seasoned leaders who have weathered many a storm.
Today’s situation calls for a radical shift in leadership with a greater focus on agility and adaptability and a shift away from top-down or command-and-control styles of leadership. There’s an old adage by Theodore M. Hesburgh that says, "The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet," which aptly describes the kind of leadership we need today.
Even though the COVID crisis has emerged as a test for good and bad leadership, crisis does not build character -- it reveals it. Existing leaders, who are agile, visionary, and courageous enough to take bold steps will emerge as leaders who will make a difference in the post COVID world.
With workplaces evolving into a new category of Work from Anywhere (WFA) -- which could be a home, office, café or even the beach -- a new dimension in leadership strategy and approaches has emerged. A leadership style developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey, known as Situational Leadership, is emerging as one of the best ways to lead teams forward today.
Situational Leadership refers to leadership that’s tailored to a situation and serves as an effective tool helping leaders align their behaviors with the needs of the individual or groups they are responsible for. With situational leadership, it is up to the leader to change their style, versus followers adapting to the leader's style.
The key aspect about Situational Leadership that makes it relevant for today’s new normal is flexibility. It adapts its style and behaviors depending on the needs a situation brings to the table.
Adapting to the New Normal: What it Takes
While there are no silver bullet solutions to lead amid this crisis, our seven proven best practices can help leaders navigate their way to finding the right solutions to their specific problems.
#1 Lead and Transform: Leadership is all about constantly striving to transform oneself, others, organizations, and society at large. When faced with crisis, leaders should not be unwilling to step forward, because even a wrong step forward is better than not taking a step at all.
#2 Influence: Leaders should aim to create a positive influence that fosters acceptance and, in turn, positive actions. The goal should be to inspire others through one’s actions. For instance, if members from the IT team worked through the night to set up a VPN system to enable remote work for hundreds of employees, leaders should highlight their story for others to hear about and feel inspired.
#3 Motivate: One key characteristic is how a leader can motivate and lead a team to success. Leaders should empower their teams to make decisions, even if they’re wrong. This is important because making a mistake is rarely a matter of ‘if’ and almost always a matter of ‘when’ in terms of business. In the face of wrong decisions, good leaders motivate their teams to take the right learnings and apply them in future.
#4 Engage: COVID-19 has created more stress than ever to the workplace. Not only are people feeling isolated due to remote work and not being able to venture out, but many are also feeling anxious and depressed. In this new normal, leaders need to create strategies, innovate platforms, and develop environments to create and foster constant engagement with employees.
#5 Collaborate: Creating a culture of virtual collaboration among all stakeholders is emerging as a new leadership priority in the post-COVID world. Audio-visual collaboration tools can come in handy for leaders to conduct fun team sessions, virtual games, online meditation, and more. For instance, Goldman Sachs offers cooking classes via Zoom.[iii] Other firms have launched virtual choir workshops, drinks and lunch sessions, story time for children, and even online challenges to boost employee morale.[iv]
#6 Flexible: We live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Therefore, leadership agility -- the ability to take rapid and effective action amid complexity -- is a key attribute today. In today’s fluid and dynamic environment, leaders need to be flexible and willing to amend business strategies and plans quickly when necessary. Those who fail to take note of changing consumer preferences and course-correct early on will end up perishing. For instance, consider Blockbuster’s failure and Netflix’s subsequent growth to a billion-dollar media giant.[v] Blockbuster’s CEO John Antioco, though renowned for his operational acumen, failed to see how media consumption was changing with the emergence of digital technology.
#7 Focus on Results: Good leaders must shift their focus activities to outcome-based measurement for success in today. To achieve results, leaders should focus on reskilling and upskilling themselves as well as their teams to prepare for the current and future challenges in the post-COVID world.
Finding Opportunity in the Face of Adversity
Amid a prolonged crisis like COVID-19, good leadership can be the silver lining the world needs thanks to its potential to turn a crisis into an opportunity for innovation. For instance, if leaders adopt a non-binary, creative approach to solving the rash of problems that typically emerges in any crisis, so will the others in the organization.
This is the time for leaders to seize the moment. Because, once the crisis abates, everyone is likely to remember how leaders acted during the pandemic. Are leaders equipped well to pass their toughest leadership test? Only time will tell.
- [i] What Happens Now, http://www.whathappensnowbook.com/
- [ii] LinkedIn Pulse, COVID-19 a Litmus Test for Leadership of Political and Business Captains, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/covid-19-litmus-test-leadership-political-business-captains-rees/
- [iii]eFinancial Careers, Morning Coffee: The story behind Goldman Sachs' push to get its people WFH. HSBC highlights the jobs that will thrive in the pandemic, https://news.efinancialcareers.com/uk-en/3003584/goldman-sachs-work-from-home-covid-19
- [iv]Law, Firms Organise Virtual Drinks, Online Challenges in Morale-Boosting Efforts, https://www.law.com/international-edition/2020/03/23/firms-organise-virtual-drinks-online-challenges-in-morale-boosting-efforts/?slreturn=20200719061936
- [v] Forbes, A Look Back At Why Blockbuster Failed and Why It Didn’t Have To, https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/09/05/a-look-back-at-why-blockbuster-really-failed-and-why-it-didnt-have-to/#247446691d64