What We Have Learned About Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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May 28, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic impact has created a period of sudden disruption for the majority of businesses around the world as country after country was placed in lockdown. How well have our business leaders responded?

A crisis asks leaders to deal with uncertainty and influence the outcome of events that they may well not have experienced before. They are asked to make decisions, often at speed and without data, that will have profound consequences for their organization and the people who work for them for years to come.

It is increasingly recognized by academics and practitioners that leadership is the ability to influence and facilitate others towards common goals. Very little leadership training or development prepares leaders to handle a crisis.  It’s astounding when you think that 85% of most developed economies’ value comes from intangibles – which in practice means people – and we fail to prepare our leaders for events which can mean the very survival or failure of the organization.

As the world becomes more interdependent with social, economic, and technology coming together in an ever more complex system, we don’t prepare leaders to manage any potential disruption to these systems. So, it’s no surprise that the outcomes have been so inconsistent with some leaders demonstrating an amazing ability to help their business pivot and adapt to the crisis while others have made poor decisions and, in some cases, ruined their long-fought business reputation.

Leaders should be developed, so they have a playbook or a range of playbooks on how to lead in periods of disruption when people are concerned, have anxieties, and are fearful. The work by USA professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield are worth exploring.  They say effective leadership is about direction giving, meaning-making, and being empathetic and that in a crisis, these three behaviors need to be publicly displayed. They found that direction giving is often overused while empathizing and explaining are underused.  This may be because the model of leadership in the west is derived from the ‘leader as hero’ approach, which, in times of crisis, tends to over centralize and become very dependent on the top-down approach of ‘leader knows best.’ The balance of being empathic, asking for input, listening, spending time giving the context and rationale for decisions helps people deal with the very human, emotional response to a crisis.

What is clear is that a more emergent form of leadership that emphasizes collaboration, creativity, and the engagement of people is long overdue. Organizations often have a ready supply of people with this capability – I call them problem-centered leaders.  The issue is they don’t perceive themselves to be leaders and don’t identify themselves with top management roles. They often describe what they do as project management or ‘someone who gets things done.’  What motivates them is solving a difficult problem. These problem-centered leaders have often not been taught; they have just developed a set of skills aligned with positive energy and an ability to motivate others to help them achieve their tasks.

These individuals are the people who are seen within organizations as able to make things happen. When tough tasks are being allocated, everyone wants them to lead or be in their project team. Problem-centered leaders often lack status and don’t aspire to a traditional leadership career; they just want to get important stuff done. Having observed this behavior in many organizations, these problem-centered leaders are consistently overlooked in talent management approaches and high potential systems.  Yet, in a crisis, they are the leaders who the organization depends on to make things happen fast. They build teams quickly and effectively with a clear focus on what success looks like; people have clarity on their role and feel empowered to take action.

We need a more rounded view of leadership, where these individuals are nurtured and developed as they possess the raw material to help the organization respond to disruption and change at pace.

A study from Gallup in 2017 found that only 13% of people at work are fully engaged. This crisis has amplified the need for a new type of leadership – one that’s less about hierarchy and task management and more about inspiring others to give their best. It seems that this period of disruption has highlighted the fact that this kind of talent is in short supply within many of our organizations.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, there will be much debate around remote and flexible working and organizational design.  I hope that debate also includes the creation of leaders that help organizations thrive in periods of change and disruption.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.