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Five opportunities the pandemic offer us to be better leaders

Through the crisis we have become acutely aware that a big shift in organizational culture is necessary.

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What differentiates COVID-19 from any other crisis is that globally we are all in the same boat. The ongoing pandemic has been a shock to the system of everyone on earth, simultaneously striking at the heart of every nation.

While of course there is no escaping the devastating impact of COVID-19, this collective jolt also gives us the most significant opportunity we will ever have to redefine staid, business-as-usual approaches to leadership and work.  Although we realized some time ago that the old leadership models, based on fear and control, are not fit for purpose, through the crisis we have become acutely aware that a big shift in organizational culture is necessary.

As described in a newly published CEMS Guide to Leadership in a Post-COVID-19 world, the pandemic has laid bare deficiencies in the more traditional ways of thinking about leadership and work, revealing a certain structural rigidity. We are now seeing a shift to something

that feels more human, in real time.  As we consolidate our efforts we must seize the valuable opportunities the crisis offers us to lead organisations better. In particular:

  1. To build psychological safety – In crisis we all fear what is coming next; we feel alone and uncertain in our personal as well as professional lives if our fears cannot be shared. The pandemic gives that crucial nudge to leaders to create an atmosphere of psychological safety – one in which no one will embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up or being yourself. You can bring your full self to work, innovate and share what you are thinking without fear.  To build psychologically safety, leaders must manage with openness and transparency, creating space for sharing worries (personal as well as professional), open-ended chats and virtual coffee breaks. They must update people daily on what they know and also what they do not know. 
  • To reframe failure as learning – In his famous book Black Swans, Nassim Taleb says: “Avoiding mistakes makes big ones more severe.” The current crisis shows that it is not good enough to utter “good job” absent-mindedly. Teams need real feedback, more communication, a listening ear and honest advice even more because of isolation and anxiety in a VUCA world. They need to be sure they are on the right track and to be enabled to avoid major disasters. The pandemic gives us all the opportunity to be coaches when we listen with interest and empathy.
  • To rethink purpose – Rethinking purpose is a mindset that it impacts everything we do in life, so what better time to do this than right now? It is amazing how often we have done a classical SWOT exercise about a company or a new product, but rarely about ourselves! It is such a simple exercise – all the more important now that we spend so much time at home, rather than in packed offices.  Learn to stop and reflect, after a meeting, after a decision, after a day: what went well, what did not go well? What is my learning? If you have never thought about your purpose, now is a great time to start, and never stop.
  • To nurture greater cultural intelligence – Cultural Intelligence (CQ) involves head, heart and body, allowing us to develop strategies for new situations, particularly when meeting people from diverse cultures, with different expectations. Online communication is more demanding than face-to-face communication, as we miss so much that physical nearness reveals. This means in our cultural interactions as leaders we must take the opportunity for more time, more silences, more empathetic listening, more perceptual acuity, more attention.  A very simple exercise to develop CQ is to learn another language, as through this we make mistakes, correct, have moments of despair and moments of elation, learn and develop self-awareness as well as awareness of other cultures. Language learning enhances tolerance for mistakes, making us aware of our biases and allows us to see the bigger picture.
  • To develop ‘humane’ leadership qualities. An organization is a reflection if its leaders’ culture, ethics and consciousness. Because of this, a post-pandemic world is crying out for humane leaders, who can encompass creating psychological safety, allowing learning from mistakes, rethinking purpose and developing CQ. Humane leadership includes trust, empathy, tolerance and respect, focusing on employee experience. Every leader is a coach for their people, and peer coaching should be encouraged.

It seems that through this pandemic we have the chance to rediscover the original meaning of leadership: service. It is not just what you do as a leader, but also how you are that counts.

Already so many lives have been tragically lost to this terrible virus. Let us not waste the opportunity it affords us to change at least one thing for the better – the way we work and lead.

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