COVID-19 Is Shining a Light on Leadership: Here’s How It Needs to Evolve

A crisis can clarify the changes we need to make in leadership philosophy and application.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. It’s clear that leaders need to step up and act quickly to find new ways of doing business. There is much we don’t know about what happens next; but what we do know is that outdated leadership approaches won’t work in this new world.

There is no escaping the painful truth that going into this pandemic, leadership was not where it should be. We’re still stuck in outmoded mindsets, re-enforced by outdated development models. Our leaders are not resilient enough, not creative enough and not inspiring enough. The consequences of bad leadership are starkly evident.

A 2016 Gallup survey found that 82 percent of managers are ineffective at leading people. This pairs well with another often-cited Gallup survey that found half of all people who voluntarily left a job did so to get away from a bad manager.

Leaders are not unaware of their shortcomings. A 2019 Gartner survey of 2,800 business leaders found that only half believe they are “well-equipped to lead their organization into the future.”
The arrival of the pandemic is now shining a harsh light on leadership shortfalls and where leaders need to improve.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, suggested that crises like the COVID-19 pandemic make it much easier to identify bad leaders. “While poor leadership choices may go unpunished—or even unnoticed—when times are good (minimizing the potential damage that clueless leaders have on their groups and societies), bad times will not only expose, but also amplify, the harmful effects of incompetent leadership.”

A crisis can clarify the changes we need to make in leadership philosophy and application. If, as Chamorro-Premuzic noted, a crisis amplifies the harmful effects of weak leadership, then it should also help to identify the new approaches we need to take.

Let’s look at the outdated theories and approaches to leadership and how they need to evolve to address current and future challenges.

Changing Mindsets

Outdated MindsetsEmerging Non-Traditional Mindsets
Change ready: Previously, we tried to develop leaders who were ready for change and gave them best practices in how to deal with it. This approach is exemplified by the multitude of models outlining change as a linear process to be managed through.

Change agile: Change is continuous and no longer defined as discrete "projects. Change is now defined as a state of constant, unrelenting transformation. Leaders need to be “change entrepreneurs” who constantly look for ways to improve themselves and their teams.

Leads through the hierarchy:In the past, we taught our leaders they should lead from the front. They learned that they needed to present themselves like a crusading knight on a horse, leading an army into battle. This leadership approach also relies heavily on chain of command, cutting off leaders at higher levels from those on the front lines. This erodes engagement and suffocates creativity.

Builds inclusion and psychological safety: The antidote to the top-down leader is the more humble “servant leader,” who sees their role as being there to serve the organization and create the conditions where everyone can bring their full potential to the table. In this model, everyone can challenge and be challenged These leaders ensure they are getting the most from their entire teams, not just the upper levels of the leadership hierarchy.

Has all the answers: Many of us still think that leaders must always be the smartest people in the room. Some embrace this idea believing that unless leaders demonstrate their skill and knowledge, all the time, they cannot earn the confidence of the people they are leading. They ignore the fact that good ideas can and should be coming from all levels of an organization.

Has learning mindset:Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck tells us that good leaders should not be a know-it-all, but rather should aspire to be a learn-it-all. This requires leaders to demonstrate confident uncertainty, where you admit things you don’t know and seek solutions from colleagues and the people you lead. It requires leaders to demonstrate equal measures of humility and expertise.

Internal focus: Traditionally, a lot of our leaders’ time and energy is focused internally on running operational challenges. This can cut us off from all the things happening in the outside worldfrom market conditions to other current events and from new innovative approaches to problem solving. 

External focus: If the novel coronavirus pandemic is teaching us anything, it is that the world will look profoundly different once the pandemic has eased. Leaders need to maintain a keen external view and be up to date on market, geopolitical and social trends and events that could impact the future of the organization.

Changing Behaviors

Outdated BehaviorsEmerging Non-Traditional Behaviors


Gives regular feedback: In the past, leaders were told to provide feedback to employees without defining what kind of feedback. This led to static and unproductive interactions between manager and employee. Difficult or awkward performance issues were usually kept on the sidelines. This approach strips value from feedback. 

Embraces radical candor: In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott outlines the dividends that come from balancing difficult conversations with genuine empathy. Leaders must always demonstrate that they care about their employees. But they must also confront mistakes and poor performance in a focused and purposeful way.

Favors top down communication: There was a time when leaders could fulfill all their communication responsibilities by posting a memo on the bulletin board with the hope that everybody read and understood the message. Information was shared only on a “need to know” basis and employees were reminded that they didn’t need to know everything. This creates skepticism and distrust. 

Taps into the social movement:Smart leaders know that communication in organizations rarely flows through formal channels. They avoid top-down messaging and adopt a more grass-roots approach where leaders at all levels in the organization are empowered to share messages. This allows leaders to create a two-way conversation where information is exchanged in equal measure with feedback, unleashing the collective power of your team or organization. 

Periodic and static performance conversations: Far too many organizations have a very two-dimensional approach to performance conversations. Many current performance management systems require one or two static conversations between leader and employee in a specified time frame. But many times, these conversations lack focus and purpose. 

Regular and dynamic performance conversations: Performance is not something you only think about twice a year. Performance conversations need to be more fluid and frequent. When you share observations about how people are doing in real time the people you lead can learn and improve themselves on a regular basis. 

Busyness and long work hours as a badge of honor: Particularly in a crisis, traditional leadership models embrace the idea that results need to be achieved at any cost. As a result, leaders often trade their own health and well-being for organizational goals.

The best leaders know how to thrive:Leaders want to build a culture of well-being that drives engagement and productivity and balances effective prioritization of workload with looking after their own intellectual, emotional and physical health. Leaders who tend to all of these elements are much better placed to thrive and be successful. 

Unfortunately, the current state of leadership in many organizations is not what is needed to survive this crisis. Will this crisis be the turning point that forces companies to jump start more effective leadership development? We have an opportunity to objectively assess the current state of our leadership and apply new behaviors that we already know work better.

A crisis can expose weak leaders. It can also inspire us to be better leaders.

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