The worst global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu. Heightened awareness of systemic racism. Political unrest. Isolation and loneliness.

As Dede Henley, principal at Henley Leadership Group, puts it, 2020 was “a crisis on multiple fronts.”

Even as we’re now well into 2021, many of the challenges we saw last year aren’t going away any time soon. Team members are looking to their leaders for guidance and support as they navigate both new and existing challenges both personally and professionally.

The recipe for leadership success in 2021 calls for four key ingredients. With these on hand, you’ll be well positioned to guide your team through the year … no matter what obstacles it may bring.

1. A Human-centric Work Environment

The coronavirus pandemic exposed many existing challenges for employees, including juggling multiple responsibilities at home and increasing workloads, says Katharine Manning, president of Blackbird DC, a trauma and victimization training provider, and author of “The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm and Confident Response to Trauma On the Job.”

With a widespread shift to remote work amid COVID-19, we gained a “glimpse into each other’s home lives” that we didn’t necessarily have before, she explains. Henley agrees, noting that our personal and professional lives are now “very much comingled.”

It’s important that today’s leaders make space for employees to share not only how they’re managing professionally but holistically. After all, since the start of COVID-19, many people have “reluctantly become remote homeschool teachers in addition to [managing] their full-time job,” Henley says.

Ensuring employees can bring their authentic selves to work and voice their concerns as a “whole person” has become a “new leadership distinction,” Manning says. Jennifer Colosimo, president of the enterprise division at FranklinCovey, echoes this sentiment, adding that we have to “view people as whole human beings” and understand their unique perspectives in order to lead effectively.

There are many ways to create a people-first work environment, from scheduling regular mental health check-ins with team members to simply asking how they’re doing both professionally and personally during one-on-one meetings. However, one of the best ways to support your people is by championing flexible work policies. A new Topia report, which surveyed over 1,250 employees working in large enterprise organizations, found that flexible work arrangements are important to nine out of 10 employees.

“One thing everyone can agree on is that greater flexibility in determining where and how to get work done — whether that’s in an office or at home — is a good thing for employees, and ultimately businesses too,” the report states. Organizations that embrace flexible work will not only see improved retention but the opportunity to tap into an entirely new talent pool.

Of course, no human-centric workplace is complete without adequate support for employees’ physical and emotional well-being. Whether by providing access to online meditation tools, supporting telemedicine appointments and even offering “community vaccinations,” there’s many ways to support your team member’s physical and mental health, says Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy officer of SocialChorus, a workforce communications software provider. “Communication is obviously key for employees to know they have these benefits available,” she adds. Leaders should not only make employees aware of these resources but champion their use.

For successful leadership in 2021 (and beyond), “It’s essential to factor in the human element,” says Laura Baldwin, president of O’Reilly, an online training provider. “Teams are inevitably struggling with family problems they’ve never before had to consider. These are their new realities, and if leaders want to get the most from their people, supporting them through it all is mandatory.”

2. Vulnerability

Even in the most human-centric work environments, talking about personal challenges at work isn’t easy. Manning says leaders need the self-awareness and confidence to “walk the walk” and discuss their own struggles so that their team members feel comfortable doing the same. “When you open up about your own vulnerabilities, that’s really powerful,” she says. “You’re modeling that it’s OK to talk about hard things.”

When leaders are transparent about their own challenges and shortcomings, they are creating a culture of trust and psychological safety on their team — which Colosimo says is paramount in helping team members through a crisis. When teams are built around this type of culture, Manning says, they will “pull together instead of apart” during a crisis.

Employees don’t expect leaders to have all the answers. But they do expect them to be open and transparent with their team. During uncertain times, Henley explains, “the best place a leader can stand is in their humanity.”

3. An Effective Response

A global pandemic wasn’t a part of organizations’ strategic plans for 2020. It forced business across industries to move quickly and adapt new ways of working. With vaccines becoming more widely available and social distancing requirements easing up, many organizations are planning a return back to the office this year.

“A lot of companies have made past investments in physical space, so they’re feeling the pressure to keep that investment or make something out of it,” says Dave Crenshaw, chief executive officer of Invaluable, Inc., and author most recently of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done.” At the same time, “People are becoming increasingly used to working from home, and that puts them in a situation where they’re stuck in the middle,” he says.

The transition back into the office won’t be easy for employees with anxiety around catching the virus, Manning says. Leaders should clearly outline the health and safety precautions in place before expecting employees to return to the office. More importantly, they should “make sure their people feel heard,” she says. Responding to employees’ concerns with empathy and understanding will go a long way in ensuring any major change is smooth sailing.

The coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the only crisis we saw in 2020. Political upheaval and protests in response to increased awareness of systemic racism plagued the nation and forced leaders — and many companies — to confront their own bias. Many large corporations released anti-racist solidarity statements in response to the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and many continued to ramp up their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts throughout the year.

Manning says that these issues can drastically impact employees’ performance at work. Supporting employees through both “personal and societal” struggles is key in keeping them engaged and focused on the job, she says.

Of course, committing to DEI requires more than a one-off training session. Rather, “It’s part of how you lead,” Henley says. Inclusive leaders are committed to the ongoing work of recognizing and mitigating their own bias so they can drive a more equitable future of work.

4. Self-care

The last ingredient in the recipe for leadership success in 2021 is, perhaps, the most important: self-care. As a leader, you are committed to serving others. But you can’t serve others if you forget to take care of yourself. Prioritizing your own mental and emotional health, especially during a crisis, “is hard advice to take,” Colosmio says. “But you have to fuel your own fire if you’re going to fuel others.”

Manning agrees that it’s “essential that leaders pay attention to their own mental health and self-care over this next year.” When leaders recognize that their proverbial batteries are running low and don’t take the time to recharge, “it will affect the whole team,” she says.

There are many ways to incorporate self-care into your daily routine. For some, it may mean taking a five-minute stretch break each hour or going for lunchtime meditative walks. For others, it may mean taking up a new hobby like learning to play an instrument or cook a new type of cuisine after work. Find what fuels you, and prioritize it. Doing so will leave you recharged and ready to lead.

Being a leader is hard enough during normal times, not to mention during a crisis. But with these ingredients on hand, you will have all you need to lead your team through uncertainty and into the future.

Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders.

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