The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the volume, velocity and complexity of change and upended our health and the way we work, learn and live. Crises like this one require leaders to develop new skills to be effective and to continue to lead in their organization and their community.

Learning and development (L&D) teams have a role to play in helping leaders develop such skills. In particular, three skills are critical now: practicing self-care, exhibiting empathy and fostering innovation.

1. Self-care

Leaders have traditionally downplayed self-care as an indulgence and as too touchy-feely and time-consuming for their fast-paced lives. However, as Dr. Palena Neale points out in a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, when leaders take care of themselves, they become better at taking care of and leading others.

The guidance “in case of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first before helping others” applies now more than ever. During times of crisis, the skill of self-care is foundational. Specifically, the research shows that leaders who exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep can be more clear-minded, empathetic and innovative, as Neale writes. Rachel Boehm, a workplace wellness expert, says that self-care, including exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress management, “builds resilience like compound interest.”

How Can L&D Help?

Firstly, it is important to recognize and embrace the notion that the need for self-care is not a sign of weakness. As Brené Brown’s research tells us, showing vulnerability implies strength. For leaders, one practical step to embrace self-care is to carve out time on their calendar; one hour per week is a good start.

Secondly, learning and talent development teams can curate a virtual weekly wellness program for leaders and their teams. For example, one program can include 10 minutes of mindfulness exercises, a 20-minute “chair yoga” practice, and 10 minutes of meditation an online meeting platform. You might even consider hiring a workplace wellness professional to coach leaders.

Finally, to help leaders monitor their progress, talent development teams can encourage leaders to journal (on paper or electronically) about their weekly self-care practice, including things that went well and what they would like to change. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg writes that the best way to build a new habit is to understand the habit’s cue, routine and reward. Self-care is what he calls a “keystone habit,” as it can positively influence other habits. Journaling is a quick and easy step leaders can take to begin developing that habit.

2. Empathy

Empathy is another skill that many leaders ignore as being too “soft.” But it is a critical cornerstone in design thinking and understanding the user experience, which is critical in the development and delivery of any product or service.

This video from IDEO, a leading design thinking organization, shows that empathy is about walking in another person’s shoes and trying to see, hear and feel what that person sees, hears and feels. This skill is not easy and requires practice.

How Can L&D Help?

This New York Times article provides some practical tips. During the pandemic, frontline workers have put their fears and concerns aside to show up in hospitals, grocery stores and delivery trucks to bring us the services and goods we need to survive. Many parents have struggled with working from home and homeschooling their children full time.

Being empathetic can help leaders of these employees understand their team better and make work more pleasant and more productive for all. Help leaders talk with people in the organization they have not met before, ask them about their life and then listen to them. Encourage leaders to shadow team members, customers or other stakeholders for a day, in person or virtually. Set up a virtual coffee hour where employees can “stop by” and chat about what’s on their mind.

3. Innovation Leadership

In times of crisis, leaders must foster innovation so their team and organization can come up with new ways to tackle unexpected problems and challenges that emerged due to the crisis. Innovation leadership is the skill of inspiring and empowering others to innovate. In their book “The Innovator’s Way” Peter Denning and Robert Dunham describe eight essential skills leaders need to develop so they can lead innovatively: sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading and embodying. All of these skills require leaders first to practice self-knowledge and then connect with their team, organization and community to drive innovation. At least two of these skills — sensing and envisioning — require self-care and empathy.

How Can L&D Help?

L&D can help leaders strengthen their innovation leadership skills by offering courses, learning experiences, coaching and job rotations. Learning experiences can include curated courses, videos and web events leaders can complete on their own and with their team. Assigning a personal coach can help leaders delve deeper into their innovation leadership practice. Finally, a job rotation in a different part of the organization or with a partnering organization can help leaders expand their network and apply what they are learning with their coach and asynchronous learning experiences.

Leaders have an immense responsibility to empower their team and hold them accountable in order to deliver performance outcomes aligned with their organization’s mission. Learning and talent development teams, then, have a responsibility to help leaders continuously learn and grow. Enabling the three interrelated skills of self-care, empathy and innovation leadership can set the path of continuous growth and success for leaders and their team.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.

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