What Good Leadership Looks Like In The Time of COVID

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci

These are trying times for businesses and governments worldwide. It’s been fascinating to see different leaders tackle the COVID crisis based on their leadership styles. Through the chaos and uncertainty, some leaders have risen to this challenge and gained the trust and respect of their employees and fellow-citizens. Some have squandered resources, spread misinformation and put individuals’ lives at risk. We have seen leaders who have continued to put profits over people. We have also seen CEOs show vulnerability, communicate with transparency and exercise compassion. The spectrum is wide when it comes to leadership styles and I wanted to share reflections on some of the essential traits of leading in uncertain times.

So what does good leadership look like in the time of coronavirus?

  1. Good leaders stand with their teams, not perched above them. Pretending that you’re some superhuman who is not impacted emotionally or practically by the virus, simply won’t work. During these unprecedented times, it’s ok to drop your strict definition of professionalism and show up as a fellow human being. It’s ok if your kid interrupts the video-conference, or if you need to log off early to take care of yourself or your family. It’s harder for people to live up to an unrealistic standard of professionalism, especially right now.
  2. They aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. Marriott’s President and CEO Arne Sorenson addressed their associates early on in this crisis with such humanity and vulnerability that it moved me to tears. Being open with your team about your own struggles will open the door for them to share theirs. Allowing human moments to unfold in front of your team (virtually), gives them permission to be authentic with you. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a great example of someone who’s emerged as a leader that an entire country is turning to for guidance at these trying times. I’ve loved his candour in sharing even his personal failings and lessons as a leader, father and family man. Such honesty and vulnerability haven’t made us question his leadership, it’s made us admire and trust him even more!
  3. They possess emotional intelligence and compassion. Even though we’re all in this together, each of us is going to have a different emotional response to this crisis. Study after study has proven that high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) trumps traditional IQ when it comes to effective leadership. Good leaders are aware of their own emotions, know how to manage them, and are skillfully able to recognize and manage the emotions of those around them. They appreciate that each team member will have their own “emotional metabolism”, i.e., their ability to process emotion, understand that emotional response, and take one step forward. I’ve heard numerous stories of friends who are being pushed harder than ever by their managers, whilst they operating with a limited emotional bandwidth due to their fears and anxiety related to COVID. We live in a culture that is obsessed with productivity and we forget that our biggest resources, our employees, are not machines. We must, as Brene Brown has insisted, “either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour”. Don’t expect the same level of productivity as you normally would. People are homeschooling, cleaning, cooking and working full-time. Be flexible, empathetic and compassionate.
  4. They role-model resilience and agility. Leaders we admire have a knack for holding space for vulnerability and accepting the reality of this moment, whilst keeping an eye towards the future so that they can walk their team through the fog. Resilience is defined by our ability to not just bounce back but also learn and adapt from adverse circumstances. Resilient leaders welcome the array of emotions in the human experience and then look to the future with an agile and solution-focused mindset. They find opportunity in uncertain times to meet new demands being created by this new world (PS- that doesn’t mean resorting to fear-based selling which we have seen a lot of lately).
  5. They put people over profits. How you treat your employees during this crisis will not just impact employee engagement in the short-term but will have economic and reputational consequences on your business in the long-term. As restrictions start to be lifted and companies consider sending their employees back to work, we must put safety first. The economic impact of COVID is insurmountable, but it may get compounded if your employees get sick and need to take time off work. As investor and entrepreneur, Mark Cuban, explains “how companies respond right now will impact their brand for decades…not only is it smart to take care of your employees but it’s also good business”. If your employees are essential workers such as delivery drivers or grocery store clerks, and you can’t be bothered to invest in high-quality gloves and masks, and plexiglass guards at checkout counters, then shame on you. The world is functioning because these everyday heroes are putting their lives on the line to deliver essential services, so do your part to protect your employees.
  6. Communication is their secret weapon. It’s been fascinating to see how different world leaders have tackled the task of communicating with their constituents. Watching the daily briefings from Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, is like watching a masterclass on effective communication. She’s down-to-earth (often appearing at home in casual clothes with her family around her), empathetic, calming and informative. Since you’re not sitting in the same office as your team anymore, err on the side of over-communication than under-communication. One of the account managers I worked with during my consulting career used to say “share information even if you think it’s overkill”. She used to send us lengthy updates about her meetings with clients and I really appreciated that additional context. A lot of information can get missed when you’re only chatting during video meetings. Another key component of good communication is transparency. Be transparent with your team about the state of the business, how you’re handling the crisis and your everyday work. If you’re a small business, then get the team involved in coming up with new product offerings or solutions to cut costs.
  7. Good leaders listen. Watch. And then listen some more. Your team is not in front of you. Well, you can see them on a screen, or worse just hear their voice over the phone. Since 70% of human communication is non-verbal, make sure everyone turns their video on, turn off your emails and put away your phones. Good leaders are fully present, always. So the next time you’re on a Zoom call, listen and watch for the facial expressions of each team member. Do they look tired, worn-out, energetic, anxious or overwhelmed? During these times leaders will have to become hyper-vigilant about monitoring their team’s emotions to best support them and keep them engaged. When you’re having those coaching moments with a team member, remember the golden rule 80/20: listen 80% of the time and talk 20% of the time.
  8. They understand the importance of team culture. We have gotten over the initial hump of adapting to remote work, and now what? As the COVID crisis drags into the summer, the next big challenge for organizations is going to be keeping employees engaged and motivated. Good leaders know that team culture is more important now than ever before. What is was your team culture pre-COVID? How can you translate that to the digital world? There have been numerous examples of teams trying to inject a sense of fun and community through the virtual world: game nights, movie nights, fundraising for local charities, dress-up days on Zoom etc. Get your team involved in coming up with team building ideas and make sure you’re spending some time on those activities that will fuel your team’s motivation.

What other traits do you feel are going to be instrumental during this crisis? What examples of good leadership have you seen? I’d love to hear your thoughts and add more to the list!

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