Covid-19 experience shaping new leadership traits

July 22, 2021 11:47 AM

The current pandemic has altered all our lives in varied measure. As the Covid-19 crisis throws up new challenges, a new normal emerges and new leadership traits are formed.

At times like this, leaders at all levels not only have to find ways to stay ahead, but also to consider ways to keep their teams safe as well as productive.

We have all responded to the situation in different ways. Leaders, countries and institutions have all acted in their own ways, according to their culture or ingrained character and traits. During a crisis of this magnitude, following the rule book does not work. There is no manual for managing such a crisis situation. It is your character, instinct, facts and gut that guide you towards decision-making. Your decision and action depend on your values, principles and learnings along the way of your corporate journey as a leader.

A McKinsey report says, “Experience is, perhaps, the most important quality that a leader brings. In a crisis of landscape magnitude, character is of the utmost importance. The best leaders will display several qualities—one is of ‘deliberate calm’, the ability to detach oneself from a fraught situation and think clearly about how one will navigate it. Deliberate calm is often found in well-grounded individuals who possess humility, but not helplessness.”

Not all great leaders are humble, but there are reasons this trait is highly sought after, says emotional intelligence (EI) expert Harvey Deutschendorf.

Humble leadership in crisis

Experiences and learnings during adversity teach us genuine humility. Humility is a wonderful trait that tells us if someone is worthy of leading others. Leaders with humility and high EI demonstrate that the buck stops with them. They take ownership when things do not work out. They are the first to take responsibility and last to take credit. When they make mistakes, they openly admit them, rather than trying to cover up. Leaders with humility see reality clearly and starkly. They observe facts as they are and base their decisions on facts, statistics and observations. They are also able to adapt quickly as the facts change.

Can we train leaders in humility?

We cannot train leaders in humility as we do not have control over their experiences and inherent traits. We can, however, train leaders to be more self-aware, open in communication, listen, act with facts and observation, and be team players.

Can we hire leaders with such skills?

Yes, we can, and we should! To create a resilient organization, we would need leaders who are a blend of humility and performance. Well, this is a not a leadership combination that we have seen much in practice before Covid. However, we are in a different era and situation now. Leaders with varied experiences and humility will adapt to change and respond to crisis better. Hiring a candidate with such traits would require a change in our leadership hiring process. Vulnerability, self-awareness, giving credit to others, admitting mistakes, response time to crisis and the ability to coach and develop leaders are some of the traits that companies would now look for in their C-Suite.

Responsiveness and crisis management

During the Covid-19 crisis, we have seen how many leaders of different countries failed to act based on the facts available to them. The leadership in the US during the first wave failed to respond and accept the magnitude of the crisis, in spite of all the information and observations made available to them. They chose to manipulate fear and left state and local leadership to fight on their own. Many countries with dysfunctional leadership teams failed to respond adequately to the crisis, leading to chaos and mayhem.

The Tata Group committed Rs 1500 crore to Covid-19 relief. The group worked as one, deploying its expertise, technology and infrastructure for increasing capacity and creating self-reliance. Ratan Tata and N Chandrasekaran led the efforts from the front, continuously communicating through tweets and press releases about the relief measures and status of various social health initiatives.

Honest and empathetic leadership

The saying, ‘Good leaders lead by example’, may seem simple and easy—even a little trite or clichéd—but the huge number of companies that have collapsed under Covid-19 crisis proves that it is not easy at all.

Covid-19 impacted the hospitality industry the most, with the long-term repercussions potentially stretching for years. For Marriott—one of the largest hotel chains globally with over 200,000 employees worldwide—the result of the pandemic can be disastrous.

As the severity of the Covid crisis became clear, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson demonstrated exemplary leadership. He sent out a video message to all employees, expressing compassion for those staff members or their families affected by the coronavirus before Sorenson stolidly mentioned that the pandemic represented “the worst disaster ever to happen to Marriott”. Difficult decisions must be made, he said, at the same time giving out an assurance that the crisis would blow over and that Marriott would eventually be grounded in firm soil once again.

New Zealand’s PM, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated leadership with empathy and honesty. Her leadership style was decisive, fair and transparent, communicative and participative. She led from the front with empathy and honesty.

At times like this, leaders at all levels not only have to find ways to stay ahead, but also to consider ways to keep their teams safe as well as productive.

(By Sumit Goswami, Operation Leader, Global Growth Holdings)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal)

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