Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders have shared how they’ve been addressing the concerns of their businesses and asked for feedback on how they are responding during a time of crisis. Few leaders (or the rest of us, for that matter) have had opportunities to be tested as we are now, and insightful individuals have the wisdom to step back and ask, ”How we doing?”

In discussions with these leaders, their feedback has almost always been energizing, positive, enlightening and affirming. For example, one global manufacturing chief executive officer described how being in the epicenter of the tempest was calming. He found the challenge of crisis to be invigorating, within his own wheelhouse and within the capabilities of the team he had built. Being so inspired allowed him to increase his communications and his visibility so that he could inspire others. He had navigated professional and personal crises in the past and realized the opportunities afforded by stepping in, stepping up and not languishing in worry.

The CEO of a membership association shared that she had to mobilize her team to think about new ways to serve their members. She created a tumult to get everyone riled up, and the result has been a slew of podcasts, editorials, webinars, resources and personal contacts, all of which are helping the association’s members feel more secure and stable in this volatile time.

A central theme that emerged from these discussions was the recognition of how important this experience has been as a learning opportunity for leaders at all levels. Faced with a daunting circumstance, leaders’ ability to be flexible, open-minded and willing to try different actions was vital. They tried out new approaches to determine what works, what doesn’t, and why, or they recognized the benefits of leveraging or even enhancing an existing strength. All of this critical skills-building occurred unintentionally, without the structure of a formal leadership development process.

These observations highlight the fact that, after the pandemic, the way we develop leaders will change, along with many other practices and processes. The insights also reinforced the changes that some forward-thinking organizations had already begun to implement prior to the pandemic to retool their approach to leadership development.

Defining Post-pandemic Leadership Success

In the 2010s, futurists were already saying that the leadership skills critical for success in the 2020s were going to be different (see, for example, Bob Johansen’s 2012 book “Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World”). Now, it is even more apparent that organizations must rethink the portfolio of skills needed to drive revised strategies and constantly morphing business models. There will be an even higher likelihood of a steady state of uncertainty. Relying on prior skills may not work.

A human services CEO indicated that she was pleased with how her team was responding during the crisis after she set her expectations clearly. She was putting in long days and communicating constantly, and an internal survey of the organization’s resilience showed an overwhelmingly positive employee response. Her team is responding to the whirlwind, and she attributes that success to all the work the organization did in previous years to increase the capacity and capability of its leaders.

Several years ago, an assessment of the organization’s top two levels of leadership raised a red flag for the CEO; the organization did not have the leadership talent needed to effectively execute the company’s new business strategy and model. The CEO embarked on an accelerated campaign to reskill her organization’s leadership pipeline. Without that capacity improvement, the organization would not have responded to the pandemic as effectively. The CEO will conduct a debrief after this crisis abates to reassess her pipeline and confirm the new skill set requirements.

What We Learned About Learning Agility

The leadership competencies required for success in a post-pandemic world may vary from organization to organization, based on the demands of the organization’s strategy. But one skill category should be center stage for any business: learning agility. Learning agility is the ability to learn the right lessons from experience and to subsequently apply that learning to novel situations. It has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of future leadership success. Employees and leaders who were able to pivot and make a difference quickly during the global COVID crisis were undoubtedly learning-agile. In particular, they were probably:

    • Mentally agile: able to grasp complex issues quickly and even enjoy tackling this big, new problem.
    • Change-agile: comfortable with change and willing to take risks.
    • Results-agile: able to deliver outstanding results against one of the toughest challenges we’ve faced in our lifetimes.

Organizations can help vaccinate themselves against the impacts of crises by building agility in their leaders. At some point, take a look at the leaders in your company who stepped up and made a difference. What are their unique strengths, and what in their experience helped them build those skills?

The New Normal: Curating Unique Experiences

Probably one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic is that it has (hopefully) been a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. Families learned new skills and habits of togetherness, organizations learned to pivot and execute in different ways, and leaders developed new skills that they did not know that had and that have not been required before in their careers. The interesting thing about this on-the-fly learning is that it has been mostly unintentional and self-directed. Everyone has learned, because everyone has had to cope and help others to cope, and we were not able to rely on a course on Pandemic 101.

The fact that leaders learned new mission-critical skills from navigating a challenging experience should not be a surprise. Researchers have long known that the most effective way to develop or enhance key leadership competencies is to put people in real-life situations and projects to navigate in real time. After the pandemic, it will be essential for organizations to curate these learning opportunities by identifying and leveraging experiences that build the new competencies; to work with leaders to be more aware of the actions they’ve taken to be intentional in their development; and to provide time for reflection, understanding and integration of these learning experiences. Learning and development (L&D) functions will also need to create tools that allow the learning to be self-directed.

The Value of Reflection

An intriguing summary of field and lab studies conducted by European and U.S. researchers attempted to answer the question, “How do organizations learn?” and looked specifically into the role that reflection plays in learning. They found that having a series of developmental experiences alone is not sufficient for maximum learning. Instead, when learners took time to deliberately reflect on their experience, their learning was enhanced. In fact, at some point, increasing the amount of reflection was more beneficial than having additional experience.

Along with new agile skills, curated experiences and self-directed processes, reflection must be part of post-pandemic leadership development. Learning should involve curating experiences and taking time out throughout the challenge to reflect on these questions:

    • What did I do that worked or did not work, and why?
    • What did I learn from the experience?
    • (Most importantly,) how will I apply what I learned in new situations?

During the 2008 financial crisis, the phrase “never let a good crisis be wasted” made the rounds, suggesting that agile, flexible and enterprising leaders and organizations, capable of finding a workstyle that benefited their organization, could advance their business. Today’s global pandemic crisis provides the same kinds of opportunities for leaders who can find their style, develop new skills and put their learning to work.

Now is a great time to start. Take time out to reflect on your on leadership skills, what you have learned and what you are learning from this unique challenge. It will undoubtedly help you and you organization power through the coming restart.