About a year since the COVID-19 pandemic took grip, the workplace is upside-down. The forces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that was already driving us toward new ways of working have taken on a seismic impetus. This new age requires an enhanced set of leadership skills — ones that we knew about pre-pandemic but that were rarely practiced.
For training and leadership development professionals, this shift is both a challenge and an opportunity. As professor Greg Whitwell, chair of the Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS), states in the new “CEMS Guide to Leadership in a Post-COVID-19 World,” “We have been presented with a rare opportunity to redefine our business-as-usual approach. What has emerged from this crisis is the transformative effect of open and empathetic leadership.”
Not only do leadership development professionals need to have an understanding of newly emerging leadership needs, but they also need the techniques to hone them.
Challenges and Skills
The CEMS report sheds light on some of the key challenges facing leaders and leadership development at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. For 87% of respondents, COVID-19 profoundly affected business and teams in several areas:
The qualities and skills that decision-makers use to successfully lead organizations through this uncertainty have become more important than ever:
Leaders must prioritize psychological safety so that everyone can share the circumstances he or she is experiencing without fear. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on workplaces across the globe has been dramatic, and leaders will need to be able to support employees through unknown trials. In fact, leadership experts across the world point to empathy as key to effective leadership in times of crisis.
Effective communication involves individual, personal inquiry: understanding that everyone has been affected differently by the pandemic and that it can impact their work. Leaders must be transparent about the challenges facing the company and communicate them frequently.
Disclosure of Vulnerability
Many people, including leaders, have been surprised by the impact of the pandemic on their life and behavior. Showing that we all struggle is a crucial step to building relationships based on trust. While vulnerability has been long seen as key to leading during uncertain and ambiguous circumstances, in pandemic and post-pandemic times, it is vital to support healthy coping responses.
Teams must work together, drawing on the strengths of all their members to solve problems that are more complex than any they have ever encountered. Research shows that this type of collective leadership model builds on people’s unique expertise and shares the burden of managing critical situations.
Resilience, in any situation, helps us bounce back stronger. Insights from other fields, such as diplomacy, show that resilience has multiple dimensions and that, while ethereal, it can be taught.
Areas of Focus
Of course, these skill areas are vast and, for many leaders, may mean a complete shift in approach. As such, the task of leadership development may seem daunting. Here are a few focus areas to target within training:
Any modern leadership journey must start with self-reflection: encouraging learners to understand what triggers them and how their leadership behavior impacts others. In the not-so-distant past, we focused on cultivating strong, charismatic leadership. Today, we should switch our attention to learning to connect with others in a mindful, reflective and sensitive way.
Traditional leadership training often fails because, in the moment, we all have a natural tendency to search for affirmation for our perspective rather than to honestly discuss what didn’t work. Make sure learners actively seek feedback from others, preferably people with alternative views. Prepare them to be open to that feedback and even to alter their course of action. This openness is necessary to address problems as complex as post-COVID recovery.
A company of “mini-mes” is a recipe for disaster. Diversity is where innovation and growth emerge, as we realize that someone else’s perspective is just as valuable as ours. A McKinsey study on 366 public companies found that the ones in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median.
Make sure to promote an environment where diversity (cultural, generational, gender, etc.) is promoted within key performance indicators (KPIs) and integrated into training. Urge developing leaders to draw new insights from divergent perspectives, read books from different cultures and seek diverse information sources. Open up their minds to engaging international suppliers and seeking creative global ideas.
For example, a World Economic Forum article recently discussed how to capitalize on remote work opportunities for refugees — an example of how out-of-the-box leadership can create social impact, enhance business and promote post-COVID recovery. Creative thinking will help to reinvent business.
Dr. Sandra Peter, who teaches a unit at the University of Sydney Business School on learning from failure, says that “failure should not be looked upon as a dirty word, but rather a vital tool for learning resilience and survival.” We must view failure as one of the greatest catalysts for learning, not a paralyzing roadblock. Similarly, consider it an integral part of the learning process by which leaders learn to improve through trials and errors.
The term “growth mindset” refers to the idea that growth is possible in any situation, and it is crucial in the current climate to build resilience. In a post-pandemic world, leaders may need to bounce back and reinvent their businesses continuously. Research on the traits of successful global leaders found that inquisitiveness is key; they see learning opportunities in everything they do and every encounter they have.
Effective methods for developing leaders to practice inquisitiveness are asking more “Why?” questions, increasing the amount of time they spend listening and reducing the amount of time they spend talking, and establishing a habit of reflecting on new insights they gain throughout each day.
While there is increasing pressure on leaders to step up and deliver, at the same time, it’s important to encourage them to pay more attention to their own self-care, to safeguard their well-being.
Of course, the path ahead will be far from smooth. However, the insights in this article can serve as the building blocks to help us create a successful post-pandemic future.
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.