We don’t need more leaders during this global crisis — we need better leaders, at all levels of society and organizations.

Many companies think a great leader at the executive level is enough to survive a crisis, but as layoffs mount, more workers are furloughed, teams shrink and uncertainty becomes the norm, people need better leaders throughout the entire organization.

The costs of poor leadership are too high to ignore. We’ve seen the recent collapse of Wirecard due to fraud and bad decisions. We’ve seen organizations attempt to deal with racial unrest and a growing awareness of how they can be socially conscious while striving to make a profit. And, we’ve seen some leaders struggle with the balance between profitability and empathy in response to COVID-19, which McKinsey calls “the toughest leadership test.”

This context is shaping leaders through hands-on experience that demands effective practices. Leaders need to be able to trust in time-tested micro-skills while being flexible and open to developing new capabilities. But how can you develop leaders in various contexts during times of such stress and uncertainty?

The New Norm for Developing Leaders

Many new norms will come from the challenges of 2020 — not least of which is how we sustain and develop leaders during this time of social distancing and a virtual workforce. Many companies had been slowly migrating toward digital learning and collaboration as a means to cost-effectively develop leaders and employees. Now, they have been thrust into offering ongoing digital learning. As many businesses shifted quickly to digital and remote operations over the last few months, leaders have had a firsthand view of the challenges surrounding the future of work.

Organizations have discovered the challenge of developing leaders for the new reality while maintaining high levels of performance. It requires more than simply replacing classroom training with online courses. Organizations must develop new leadership skills in the flow of the work, moving from theory to practice using the technology platforms already available in most organizations.

To create best practices for leading in a digital environment, consider these starting points:

First, Understand That Leadership Happens in Context

Leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to every situation, and it operates differently depending on the context you’re leading in. Leaders must influence others in four main contexts: organizational, team, managerial and individual.

1. The Organizational Context

Effective leaders have a bird’s-eye view of the organization: What is its primary purpose and mission? What are its objectives in any given period of time? What are the best strategies to achieve its mission and objectives? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What economic or environmental concerns could impact its performance?

Without answers to these questions, leaders can’t connect the goals of their people to the goals of the organization. And while graduate management programs add value to executive leaders, they don’t always teach the practical macro- and micro-skills needed to lead in an organizational context.

2. The Team Context

In this context, leaders engage their direct reports and collaborators with other teams, departments, divisions, business units and geographies. By understanding corporate strategy and the collective needs of the team, leaders can optimize these dynamic relationships, build trust, establish norms and align networks in increasingly matrixed organizations.

3. The Managerial Context

Unlike organizational or team objectives, managerial leaders are responsible for making sure they consistently understand and meet employees’ needs as they pursue team or individual objectives. This type of leadership primarily happens in one-on-one settings, where the daily work of the individuals they lead aligns with team objectives and the broader strategy of the organization. This process includes continuous performance assessments, regular feedback, budgetary awareness and many other areas where the rubber of executing strategy meets the proverbial road.

4. The Individual Context

A high-quality organizational leadership framework is established in the roots of the company: its individual employees. Great leadership begins with leading oneself by having the skill set and the mindset to understand and effectively pursue personal objectives while securing the help and support one needs to achieve them.

Leadership doesn’t just happen at the executive or team level of an organization; it happens every day at an individual level. When employees know how to effectively set goals, assess their performance needs, and then request feedback and propose solutions to problems, they have become sufficient self-leaders. Self-leadership benefits individual contributors, managers, team leaders and the organization, and it is a critical practice to develop future managers, team leaders and executives.

Second, Understand the Fundamental Practices of Leadership

Working within these four contexts, leaders at every level must practice three fundamentals of leadership, identified by leadership experts Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi:

1. Initiate Performance Objectives and Key Results

Whether they’re using the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) approach, implementing objectives and key results (OKRs), or using another goal-setting methodology, initiating performance with clear objectives is a foundational leadership skill. Fortunately, the digital and remote workplace offers new ways to make goals at every level of an organization transparent and accountable. For example, organizations can integrate modern collaboration software with their ongoing performance management software to keep goals and OKRs top of mind. High-quality performance software includes tools to help leaders set and pursue goals and objectives more effectively and align those goals across the organization.

2. Continually Assess Performance

Organizations, especially in the new norm, can no longer afford to check in on the pursuit of goals on an annual, quarterly or even monthly basis. In an era where everything is fluid and the situation changes from moment to moment, organizations and individuals need access to real-time feedback and recognition. Leaders need to be prepared for their organizations, teams, team members and personal objectives to pivot based on an extraordinary amount of information that can change at any moment.

Modern performance theory recommends that reviews and assessments — not only of a team’s or an individual’s progress but of their motivation and skill levels — need to take place on an ongoing basis. Whether in person, in a virtual meeting, or through collaboration and performance software, great leaders establish regular check-ins on the psychological needs and mindsets of their team members. When elevating performance in a time of crisis, great leaders don’t just talk about tasks and progress toward goals; they also discuss individual, team and organizational skills and motivation related to those goals.

3. Respond to Performance

Great leaders respond to the needs of the people pursuing goal achievement. Providing ongoing feedback and recognition is a critical micro-skill for leaders at any level. Using modern technology makes it easier than ever to respond to urgent performance needs in real time. Leaders should consider new ways to engage employees through ongoing conversations, feedback and recognition practices as they work from home or feel uneasy about returning to the workplace.

Whether they are virtual or (socially distanced) face-to-face conversations, they should focus on the insights gained from regular performance check-ins and assessments. Feedback should be based on the performance needs of the individual or team, and recognition should be specific, timely and frequent.

New Norms Require New Leadership Development Methods

Developing leaders in the current environment is challenging, but it’s not optional. Leadership is a verb, not a person, place or event. It’s an ongoing practice that’s essential to the health and vitality of your organization, no matter the circumstances.

Modern leadership must be practiced at every level of your organization, not just in the C-suite. That way, it not only executes strategy in a time of crisis but also helps elevate performance, increase engagement and create a natural succession plan for future leaders in your organization.

To save time and money, and given the need to organize events, you have the power to coach individuals and teams to implement leadership best practices into the collaboration platforms you already currently use. And, you can invest in platforms that will help you improve performance while developing your leaders. Wherever collaboration happens, leadership is needed — and we need better, more effective leadership now more than ever.

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