Long reads

What has coronavirus taught us about leadership and where do we go from here?

4 Jun 2020 By Maggie Baska

Some politicians and bosses have emerged well from recent events – others less so. People Management asks the experts what key attributes will stick in a post Covid-19 world

The global coronavirus pandemic has presented extraordinary challenges for today’s leaders. Governments and businesses alike are scrambling to cope with a highly uncertain and rapidly changing landscape. As such, leaders’ approaches to managing the impact of the crisis have varied – as have the results. 

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin attracted criticism for attacking the government’s decision to close pubs and initially saying he wouldn’t pay employees (before relenting and furloughing staff). Meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach has been well-received, with her leadership style living up, for many, to her nickname, ‘Mutti’ (a German familiar form of ‘mother’).

So what has coronavirus taught businesses about leadership? People Management asks the experts...

“The classic model of leadership is over”

Rob Cross, founder of Muru Leadership  

What key lessons has the crisis taught us?

I’ve worked in this space for the last 20 years – all the way from the military through to being a corporate HR director. My particular philosophy is that the classic model of leadership – the ‘great man’ or all-seeing, all-knowing heroic leader – is over. 

This pandemic has really revealed that we’re all human beings. No one is immune. Leaders who have excelled are the ones who have connected to that human aspect. 

The other lesson is the extreme level of vulnerability that sits within society. From a leadership perspective, that tells us you can’t paper over the cracks any more. You can’t run businesses or support ongoing employment in the way we did before. 

What is the impact when a company’s leadership is in the public eye?

As we progress through this crisis, it’s critical for leaders to be as transparent as possible. Organisations, public and private, will need to make some tough decisions on how they sustain their business. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty. The best leaders will ensure this is as limited as possible. Leaders and organisations are going to have to present their future plans quickly and get on with the action that needs to be taken.

“There’s no going back to normal after this crisis” 

Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School 

Has the pandemic brought to the fore certain attributes that will be key even once it has abated? 

There are two fundamental leadership capabilities coming out of this crisis. One is the ability to create a speak-up culture. If you don’t allow people to come up with ideas or discuss what ethical decision-making means, you’re unlikely to survive very long. The second is mindfulness; there’s a lot of scientific evidence on the benefits of this for leadership. In particular, it’s connected to resilience and compassion, which have been vital for leaders in this crisis and will continue to be so.

It’s also important to note there will be no going ‘back to normal’. The way we’re living as a society suggests we will face other crises in future, so it’s going to be essential for leaders to build up resources for these.

What type of leadership have we seen from politicians and corporate figures? 

The key difference in approaches I’ve seen is how open some leaders have been to what they don’t know and taking in different perspectives, compared to those who would rather seek to portray themselves as all-knowing. Donald Trump is a classic example of the patriarchal attempt to be a ‘heroic’ type of leader – it’s all about the individual and silencing other perspectives. In contrast, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has been much more compassionate, collective, open and yet decisive. 

“Leadership programmes haven’t done well on the behavioural element”

Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD  

Has the crisis exposed weaknesses in traditional approaches to leadership?

This pandemic is challenging leaders in a different way. Previously, leadership development programmes tended to focus on things such as business continuity planning, disaster recovery and process and procedural areas. We haven’t always done well on developing the behavioural elements and leadership style because programmes tend to focus on the strategic stuff.

This crisis has also exposed some leaders’ inability to manage the short term while also thinking about the long term. We’ve seen criticism of how organisations and leaders have reacted in the short term – for example, Victoria Beckham’s business, which is obviously well-funded, going after government money on the furlough scheme. People are increasingly concerned about ‘short termism’, where businesses and leaders are focused solely on next quarter’s profit and loss. This has led to discussions about the UK’s fundamental lack of long-term investment in developing business, skills and people. 

How will leadership development be affected?

The outcome of this crisis will be more emphasis on developing behavioural and values-driven leadership. It’s about how you operate as a leader, which is not about the big ‘I am’ mentality, but how you build truly collaborative leadership, engage people and use influence within the organisation. 

We’re also hearing a lot of businesses saying this crisis has highlighted how we’ve got to train managers at every level much more on emotional intelligence and empathy – not just people at the top.

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