When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it put people to the test in ways the world had never experienced before. For leaders, these challenges exposed their strengths and weaknesses in unexpected ways.

A Sign of Major Business Changes Ahead

The pandemic has transformed the business world radically and, in many ways, permanently. According to an Oct. Harvard Business Review article by Aneel Chima of Stanford and entrepreneur and inventor Ron Gutman, the pandemic created a “new normal” marked by three dimensions of change: perpetual, pervasive and exponential.

This massive and constant shift was reflected in how leaders responded to challenges and recognized gaps in the skill sets they’d need for the future ahead. In DDI’s leadership trends survey, for example, indicates that leaders’ rating of the importance of digital acumen was 25% higher in mid-March. In addition, leaders increasingly said they need to be more prepared to respond to a competitive environment and drive innovation to improve their companies’ products and services.

The human resources (HR) function has been taking note of the rapid shift in skill sets as well. HR respondents reported a lower confidence in the bench strength of their leaders than they have at any time over the past decade. Likely, this low confidence is fueled by HR’s concern that current leaders aren’t prepared for the changed environment ahead.

Taking Leadership Skills Online

One of the biggest changes of the pandemic was the massive shift to remote work. Over half of American workers began working remotely as shelter-in-place orders took place in March. In a lot of cases, people were working remotely for the first time in their career. According to a Pew Research Center study, about half of those newly remote workers say they enjoy the flexibility provided by remote workplaces and want to continue working remotely.

However, remote work has proven to be a major and unexpected challenge for leaders. In DDI’s 2018 “Global Leadership Forecast,” 45% of leaders said they were effective at leading virtual teams. But as leaders were put to the test in 2020, only 20% said that they were effective at virtual leadership; in fact, it was their lowest-ranked skill.

While many businesses may return to in-person work at least partially, the expectations of the workforce have changed dramatically. Many workers will expect flexible work arrangements for at least part of the time. Now is the time for leaders to brush up on key skills related to communication and performance management to ensure they are equipped to continue leading in a virtual environment.

A Need for Empathy

At a time when they need it most, a lot of leaders have also lost their confidence in their ability to show empathy, according to the DDI research. The pandemic pushed the button on their abilities in many ways and, for many leaders, required more difficult and personal conversations.

Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s perspectives. Given the current challenges and pressures that everyone in the workforce is facing, it is arguably the most critical skill needed in a crisis like the pandemic. Leaders who listen to their team members and respond with empathy are more likely to connect with their employees, have engaged teams and retain talent.

The current struggle with empathy may correlate with virtual work. There’s more urgency for empathy right now, but because they aren’t connecting as often or in person, leaders and teams may not feel they are effective at demonstrating empathy.

The good news is that leaders are acknowledging empathy’s importance to their future success. Most leaders see empathy as one of the most critical areas for them to develop further. In fact, about 57% of leaders indicated to DDI that empathy was the skill they most need to develop over the next three years.

The Lasting Impacts of the Pandemic

Under ordinary circumstances, leaders are under a lot of pressure. Last year, the pressure grew, requiring leaders to shift their skill sets to lead remotely and find new solutions. Leaders need ongoing development and support to meet these challenges if they want to thrive.

For most organizations, it means providing new ways to meet leaders’ needs by providing help and development opportunities as needed. When the crisis first hit, leaders expressed significantly more desire to spend time learning, likely reflecting their insecurity. Fortunately, they also became much more comfortable with learning online.

Even once the pandemic is over, leaders will be facing a different economy — and a different world. It will require them to be more agile and adaptable than ever. Let’s make sure they have what they need to be prepared.