And in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
The pandemic has altered and disrupted how we socialise, shop and live, not to mention how we work and even how we do business. For leadership teams in companies across industries, there have been many challenges to contend with, such as keeping up morale and making sure employees have the tools they need to work effectively from home, all while dealing with so much uncertainty about the future.
The pandemic has tested leaders to the fullest, with many of them having honed their leadership skills and becoming more effective, solution-focused leaders capable of bringing out the best in people in the process.
How has this happened in such a short space of time?
Prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, authoritarian styles of management ruled the day. Strict office hours and rules were in place, the idea of allowing people to work from home was unheard of in most organisations and finding yourself in the decision-making seat meant years of toil and strife.
In just under two years after the world went into lockdown, the face of the typical workplace has changed dramatically – as have the traditional structures, rules and ‘norms’ that accompanied it. Leaders have had to adapt quickly, embrace change and learn to adopt a swift approach to decision-making, in many cases having to re-evaluate their management styles entirely.
Retaining talent during ‘The Great Resignation’ is another massive obstacle for leaders. In the US, many companies have been left with a record number of open positions, with one global survey indicating that a whopping 41% of employees plan on leaving their current jobs this year.
Plainly speaking, the pandemic has moved people to take stock of their lives and to start creating the futures they wish to live. People are no longer willing to remain in jobs where they may feel unappreciated, undervalued and invisible.
What has this taught us about being better leaders?
From presidents and CEOs to TV personalities and even celebrities, the pandemic has encouraged many people to use their skills, experience, and influence to not only steer their ships effectively, but to also offer support to others during one of toughest times the world has ever known.
Here are some of the qualities that emerged among some of the world’s most effective leaders during the pandemic.
Acting with urgency was and is crucial during any crisis. While the natural tendency among leadership teams is to wait until they have all the relevant information, the speed at which the COVID-19 virus was spreading, and the widespread devastation it caused economically, physically, mentally, and emotionally, left little time to react.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, is a great example of a leader who showed decisiveness and forward-thinking, having made the decision to suspend professional basketball leagues as early as March 2020, after which the World Health Organisation announced coronavirus as a global pandemic. It was a surprise at the time, but by sticking to his guns and taking swift action, Silver helped to prevent the potential infections of millions of NBA spectators, sparking a positive ripple effect across the sporting sector in the US.
Tech mogul Eric Yuan – founder and CEO of Zoom, the cloud-based video conferencing service that has seen incredible growth during the pandemic – is a great example of how compassion and truly caring about the well-being of employees is a mark of successful leadership.
“As a CEO, my number one job is not about the customer, product or service, it’s about our employees’ happiness,” Yuan says. “If I can make our employees happy, together we can make our customers happy.”
With the world’s workforce forced to adapt to remote working overnight, leaders who understand the importance of creating an engaged workforce ensure employees are taken care of and supported in what has been an incredibly stressful time for workers and leaders alike. This in turn, as Yuan rightfully points out, promotes a culture of high performance where employees contribute positively to overall organisational culture and the bottom line.
Emotional intelligence is an incredibly important yet often underestimate leadership quality because it enables leaders to display empathy and understand how others feel. In a time when many people, especially employees, have felt disconnected (ironically, despite the always-on nature of working from home), disinterested and unsettled, leaders who make an effort to understand the circumstances of their people are vital.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is modelled on empathy, contributing to the immense praise she has received for her handling of the pandemic not just from her home country, but worldwide. An example of this is the frequent Facebook Live chats she has taken part in, aimed at offering New Zealanders a friendly face, advice, and support from someone they could relate to, through lockdown. Her approach has made people feel safer and more capable of handling the challenges they are facing.
Embracing change to show up as a leader was no small feat for CEOs, managers and business owners over the past year and a half, but the leaders who are solution-focused, compassionate and willing to put themselves in others’ shoes have proven the most effective during the pandemic.
Leading and inspiring people for high performance contributes towards creating a culture of high performance and an engaged workforce. This, along with the skill of emotional intelligence may not be qualities that all leaders are born with but are certainly ones they every leader can learn.