Why Covid means we are all leaders now

Kate Cooper explores how lockdown and the rise in remote working during the pandemic have altered perceptions of leadership

The Institute of Leadership & Management's mission is to inspire great leadership everywhere, not only in the geographical sense, but at every level, in every part of every organisation. Leadership may be exercised by those who have ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ in their title, but now also by those whose title has no suggestion of leadership. 

The pandemic has meant that we are all leaders now; not gathered in C-suites anymore, but Zooming in from home offices, kitchen tables, dining rooms, sharing our workspaces with schoolchildren, undergraduates and partners. Leaders are more geographically dispersed yet ironically more connected to colleagues who used to be a train or plane ride away. 

Undoubtedly leadership everywhere is challenging, but it is being redefined because it has been freed from the prison of geographical location. Does this mean that we need new sorts of leaders? Are there people who can only do face-to-face leadership or is this new digital leadership something we can learn?

During International Leadership Week this year, the institute has asked academics, thought leaders and practitioners from around the world for their new perspectives on the type of leadership that is needed now, bringing their own cultural insights and context for how leadership is understood and enacted. 

The answer to whether we can learn to be a type of leader, depends on how well we build and sustain relationships. As Peter Drucker, management philosopher, said: “Organisations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity.”

This responsibility for relationships exists whether people are sitting at the next desk or in their home office. Great leadership is being able to relate to your colleagues wherever they are. 

If we recognise that relationships need work we must also recognise that we can learn to get better at them. Those of us trying to lead with emotional intelligence, with empathy and understanding, look for the cues that people give us in face-to-face meetings; are they saying too much, not saying enough, lacking in energy or late? Body language and behaviour tell us so much before a word has been uttered. As empathetic leaders, we look to respond to those unspoken messages – now we must look for them digitally. 

How long do people normally take to reply to an email, to respond to a phone call? What appears to be their normal hours of work? Many people enjoy flexing their working day to accommodate the other responsibilities they have and enjoy not having to subcontract some of their personal responsibilities to others. Once we have identified what is normal for people in our teams we can start to look out for changes – learning a new digital body language and learning to read it. 

AGMs are a great example of the democratising of leadership – the stage is gone, the exalted place where CEOs stood alongside big screens have mainly disappeared. We're all looking at, and from, small screens, and there's something much more connected about that. Perhaps this allows leaders to become closer to people than we were previously. That's not to say that the power dynamics are no longer at play, but different ways of communicating enable different levels of understanding, and a different way of experiencing each other.

Join The Institute of Leadership & Management at International Leadership Week from 16-19 November.

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management