Blurry COVID leadership times

1+10 leadership lessons from the COVID year

“What are you taking away as a leader from all this,” asked Susan, the coach of, as the COVID year 2020 was drawing to a close.

I thought I knew. Towards the end of the year, I gathered my teams to reflect on their work during the pandemic months. I asked them what they had learned and which lessons they wanted to take with them into 2021. I wanted them to think what kind of workplace we aspire to build as we emerge from the crisis. Colleagues were sharing their thoughts and feelings and I took meticulous notes. I combined them into my end-of-the-year message to all staff. 

But it turned out I was not able to immediately answer Susan’s question. Throughout all these months, I focused almost entirely on my staff, the continuation of our work and resilience of our organization. I didn’t create much space for my own thoughts.

On reflection, I want to start with something that should probably be lesson #1 – leaders’ self-care. For many leaders in the perfect storm of 2020, the typical difficult leadership moments, usually spread over several years, were suddenly brought together into one short period. The VUCA world, with its volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous reality, descended on us virtually overnight. We were not prepared for it, and we had to “keep building the plane as we were flying it.”

There is a personal cost to leading in the VUCA world, the cost to our own wellbeing and welfare. A heightened sense of responsibility, constant vigilance, anxiety of not knowing what the next challenge will be and whether we are sufficiently equipped to deal with it – all of this brings utter exhaustion.

It is easy to talk about resilience and determination, and there are plenty of inspirational speakers willing to share wise words about it. But coping goes beyond being resilient and determined. It starts from recognizing that we have the right to look after ourselves and to be looked after in the same way that you take care of our staff. As Maya Angelou said, “…you have two hands, one for helping others, the other for helping yourself.”

Beyond this, here are my ten leadership lessons from the COVID-19 workplace:

1. Our shared purpose.

Greater than our individual issues, it unites us and makes us stronger, able to focus our energy where it is most needed and to better withstand adversities. The opposite it also true – when we don’t unite our people around a shared purpose, they might not be able to see beyond and raise above their own concerns of the moment. They will be more likely to spend time and energy on non-priority matters, grow frustrated and lose motivation.

As leaders, we have to be solution and result-oriented. And if our people are genuinely engaged in finding solutions and bringing results, it will strengthen their sense of shared purpose. Whatever challenge the organization is facing, leaders need to consistently link discussions about solutions back to the organizational purpose and core values so people are clear about the “why” of their plans and actions.

One way to create and maintain a shared purpose during a crisis is to establish working groups or task forces that unite people across teams around specific tasks. But it will only work if these structures have well-defined timeframes and end with a concrete deliverable, something that gives our colleagues a clear sense of collective accomplishment.       

2. Trust.

Trust in the professionalism and responsibility of all staff members is essential at all times, but indispensable when operating in a crisis mode. Often, the knee-jerk reaction to a situation of protracted ambiguity, when we can no longer rely on our own “circle of control” as we knew it, is to create more controls, more rules, and more procedures. But when we over-regulate what our staff members should do and how they should behave, we are effectively saying that we don’t trust them to do the right thing. Acting as overprotective parents, we take away their agency.

In the short run, prohibiting people to come to the office, issuing exhaustive instructions on the usage of personal protective equipment, introducing new layers of approvals for business travel and strictly controlling working hours for remote workers, all accompanied with a threat of a disciplinary action for non-compliance, will produce desired effects. People will stay at home, wear masks, refrain from traveling and keep detailed records of office hours – and use a lot of their energy on keeping their disgruntled feelings and inner resistance to themselves.

But if we want our people to internalize a sense of responsibility, we need to believe that they can, and we have to give them the right tools to act responsibly. We need to offer well-explained choices to them, and teach them to choose wisely. We need to model being responsible for oneself and for others. We need to focus on tasks, not hours, giving our staff the flexibility and support they need to accomplish these tasks. Doing so, we will achieve the same short-term results – but our people will own these results. Next time a crisis happens, they will be ready and able to act responsibly without being told to do so.

3. We are all interdependent.

We must learn to work better together, regardless of our personal beliefs and motivations. We can succeed only if we are able to rely on one another, if we believe that our colleagues will, in good faith, play their part in achieving our shared goals.

As leaders, we need to help our staff focus on things that unite them. We want them to be able to raise above personal animosities. We don’t want them to act on the basis of their assumptions about the intentions of others but to recognize all contributions, in all their diversity. And we need to be the first ones to model this respectful inter-reliance, important to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

We also need to model conditions that will foster respect for other colleagues’ time, particularly important when all staff works remotely during a trying period like this. Flexibility is an essential part of remote working, requiring all of us to switch our focus from when people are carrying out activities to what outcomes they produce. And because everybody is working in their own rhythm, it is our responsibility to plan well and in advance, so we don’t create last-minute workflow disruptions for others.

4. Personal space.

A personal space, separate from work, is as much a physical reality as it is a mental concept we create for ourselves. It must be created and maintained when people work remotely. But the blurry work-life reality of working at home, with conflicting responsibilities and multiple devices bombarding us with notifications, makes many of us feel that we need to be available 24/7.

Being always on duty is not a sign of extraordinary commitment but rather of a faulty organizational culture. Never switching off leads our staff to exhaustion and burnout. But, when done right, remote work can improve people’s productivity, creativity and morale.

As leaders, we need to learn setting up our workspaces and scheduling our work day, with clear boundaries separating them from private life, so we can model it for our employees and support them to do the same. For example, when we send an end-of-day email with a task, we tick off an item on our to-do list, but we have just created a new one for the recipient. We need to remember that. It is better to set a delayed e-mail delivery for the following morning than to create late evening sense of urgency in our staff.

5. Empathy and compassion.

They are key in times of crisis and uncertainty. To manage in crisis and steer their organization into a post-crisis next normal, we as leaders need to show that we can tune into the emotions others are feeling. We need to act with compassion so people feel that they are cared for. When we model empathetic behaviour, others will follow suit and learn to be more compassionate during difficult times.

Workplace empathy and compassion are not some wishy-washy concepts, feel-good add-ons, but a profound understanding that, to be effective, people need to be able to bring their whole selves to work, complete with their individual circumstances, personal needs and feelings. It is about bringing more humanity into our leadership roles and seeing our people as people, not just “staff”. Empathy and compassion matter, because they give us a way to let others know that they are accepted and important.

But to show genuine empathy and compassion, as leaders we need to start with allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. To acknowledge, voice and “domesticate” our own anxieties and fears. Only then we will be able to bring our genuine presence to the office, support others and alleviate their anxieties and pains.

6. Perfect is the enemy of good.

It is also a stumbling block for flexibility, adaptability and innovation that are needed in situations when constant change is the only thing that’s predictable. Like any crisis, the COVID period is not the time for holding ourselves to a high bar of perfection. Instead, we should think what’s possible and needed, and be able to shift our focus and adapt quickly.   

In crisis situations, our people don’t need perfect data – they need timely information. They don’t need perfect decisions but quick and adequate ones, so they understand which direction we are taking and why.

To give up on perfect for the sake of good, we need to make four allowances: that somebody else’s idea might be better than our own; that many day-to-day decisions, even if they used to be centralized, can in fact be delegated; that it is OK to take initiative and make a mistake, as long as we learn from it and course-correct; and that risks are to be embraced, not avoided or ignored. If we can model this, we will teach our people how to act courageously and creatively in face of unpredictability.     

7. Realistic expectations with a sense of optimism.

A protracted crisis of the COVID-19 proportions, with its disruptive effects in all spheres of our lives, builds up a desperate longing for the return of a familiar, predictable and comfortable normal of the past. We have seen this in our workplaces: detailed plans to hold a large in-person conference after the summer holiday, a firm resolve to keep the budget set aside for travel and offline training at the end of 2020…

As leaders, we may be tempted to sugar-coat the reality, often in the name of protecting our staff wellbeing. But if we do, we will set our people up for disappointment when things do not turn out the way we said they would. With repeated disappointments, staff will lose motivation and disengage. Promising the unattainable can shatter our credibility.

People need to know that we understand the severity of the situation and the complexity of challenges we face. But they also need to see that we are not overwhelmed by it and remain confident that the organization will find its way through the crisis. Such confidence, rooted in authentic values and trust in people’s capabilities, helps everyone remember what purpose difficult times serve, and brings a sense of togetherness. It can give everyone in the organization the energy they need to move forward. 

8. Involving people in decision-making

It boosts their engagement and generates buy-in. It motivates our staff to continue searching for solutions to the challenges that the organization faces. It also improves the quality of decisions. Because the crisis – any crisis – involves many unknowns and surprises, we as leaders are often not able to get all data within the necessary decision-making time frame. We can better cope with uncertainty by relying on what others know.

We also need to able to revise or reverse our decisions when our staff collect new information and develop new knowledge. This ability for critical self-reflection based on own experience and diverse input from staff is important to avoid three common traps: to decide on using past solutions to new challenges because “it has always been done this way,” to make up new solutions without drawing on past lessons, and to stick to decisions that are obviously not bringing a desired result.

We need to remember that the way we make and execute decisions influences staff confidence in organizational leadership. Even when decisions have to be made fast, with no time for involving our people, we need to communicate it quickly and transparently – not just the decision itself, but also our rationale behind it and an explanation for not consulting.

9. Frequent, open and honest communication.

It roots people in organizational values, creates a sense of stability and belonging. We might be tempted to give only partial information to our staff because “we don’t want to upset them,” or release new information late because we wait for new facts to become available. We might think that giving incomplete information will reveal what we don’t know, and people will see this as our weakness.

But neither approach is true, and neither gives our people reassurances they need in a crisis. If we stick to these approaches, our people will resort to creating their own narratives, speculating that things are withheld from them, and complaining that we do not take them seriously. In absence of transparent and frequent communication that offers guidance and helps making sense of the situation, they will develop tunnel vision, focusing only on the present rather than looking toward the future.

We need to remember that communication is a two-way street. If we want to communicate in a way that resonates with our staff, we need to first listen to them and understand their perspectives, their fears, expectations and hopes. And we have to take these perspectives and emotions seriously. Doing so, we will not only retain staff engagement and generate additional buy-in, but we will also build a culture of trust.  

10. Active listening

It makes people feel safer. If staff members know that they can come to their leaders anytime with any question or concern, if they are certain that they will be listened to with respect, attention and confidentiality, they will see that their leaders really care – and will respond with trust and loyalty.

Our people need a space and time to be heard. We have to resist the urge to respond immediately to our staff and put our solutions on the table. Instead, we need to start with listening with empathy and respect to what they want to say – and also what they feel and the things they are not saying. We need to listen to understand, not to respond, setting aside our own judgments and preconceived notions.

This requires being present in the moment, giving others our undivided attention and listening with focus – all particularly important when most of our communication happens virtually. Multitasking doing a conversation sends a clear signal to the other person that we are choosing to focus our attention on something else, not on listening to them.    

In all its misery, the COVID year has also been an enabler; as we had to find our way through the new reality, it has allowed us to show – and grow – the quality of our leadership. And the highest possible quality of responsible leadership is what we will all need as we are heading into an uncertain new year, knowing that the volatility of the past 12 months is far from over.

If there is one single investment organizations should plan on making, as a matter of self-preservation, it is in building their responsible leadership capabilities so they can remain relevant and effective in our volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous world.

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