How 2020 has challenged leadership

COVID-19 has been the single all-encompassing internal and external driver for organisations. It has changed the focus of leaders and exposed good and bad leadership – not unlike Warren Buffet’s investment mantra that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”!

COVID-19’s severe and sustained strike has shown winning leaders to be those who had prepared and trusted their workforces to make the best decisions they could – quickly with customers interests at heart. It was and is critically important for people to continue to do their job by adapting very quickly – and regularly – to new challenges.

This was helped by the operational side benefiting from the actioning of risk management plans around business continuity and crisis management. Organisational and client trust has enabled resilience – addressing and solving issues rapidly at the coalface. The success of working from home is a great example of wins all-around from organisational support and trust in staff.

Transparency and clarity of communication led by modelling of the right behaviours by leaders builds the right culture over time to build this trust in people. On trust and resilience, I contrast the empathetic, supportive and data-driven clear leadership on COVID-19 by Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand with the lack of those elements by Donald Trump in the U.S. and the starkly tragic different outcomes. Leadership matters.

What leadership requires now

As a long-time proponent of relational leadership, truly treating people as your organisation’s greatest asset and enabling them to be the best that they can be as empowered, productive individuals, is a key strength and responsibility for today’s leaders. During my time on the Board of Siena College, I saw how this leadership approach matched the underlying culture of a proactive responsibility to students, teachers and the school community and helped ensure people had the tools and permissions to make positive change and get things done. The results were impressive.

And now COVID-19 illustrates how well this approach works in the wider world. Leaders need to be open to innovate and willing to use technology options to get things done – many organisations had to accelerate their digital plans and saw results in months instead of years. This acceleration of trend in digital capabilities is here to stay.

The digital future

One of the by-products from 2020 is new and greatly increased digital awareness. Customers / members not used to the digital world have had more exposure to its benefits and convenience from tech tools supporting work and social interaction to telehealth, and be more appreciative of the benefits of a ‘digital pivot’. In terms of leadership, organisations need to have the leaders with energy and courage to bring ideas to the table and encourage the team to run with those ideas. Having a start-up mentality is not necessarily a bad thing for any organisation.

And this can’t be done at a snail’s pace. This empathetic leadership that I am recommending needs to understand the critical importance of making decisions quickly while making the most of the limited data available.

Leadership in 2021

Building and/or maintaining a strong positive enabling organisational culture must be leadership’s primary goal. Consistent with this, leaders need to be understanding and empathetic to their customers/members and staff needs and restrictions. They should be flexible and agile, while planning to continue to improve.

We have entered a recession and many customers/members – particularly those in small business, hospitality and the arts are suffering. This needs to be recognised and leaders need strategies to support that.

Finally, leaders need to have the courage to act, being prepared to pivot at short notice in the light of new information, and in so doing communicating clearly on the what and why to bring the team with them.

Leadership has never been so important.