What Have Leaders Learned From COVID-19?


Edward D. Hess

WRITTEN BY: Mary Brackett

Newswise — Please take a moment to pause and reflect. Since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, how has it affected your leadership approach? What have you learned about yourself? What has surprised you?

We have each spoken with leaders about these questions, and the answers are revealing. In general, leaders are surprised at how well their employees have adapted to remote, virtual working. In addition, many leaders are surprised at how much more efficient they are as leaders and how they are able to engage with many more stakeholders under this new way of working. In many cases, employees are happier because they are getting to spend more time with family and some very close friends because they are saving commuting time and they are not away from home traveling. Here are some quotes:

  • ‘”I’m more connected and intentional, and I’m having more meaningful conversations with my entire organization. I’m finding myself thinking more about what I need to get better at.”
  • “My aha moment was realizing I need to get comfortable with uncertainly and increase my capacity for empathy. I need to address fear and anxiety head-on with my team.”
  • “I’ve started thinking deeply about what my organization needs from me as a leader and how to foster trust and transparency.”
  • “Authentic communication is imperative. I’ve been challenged to admit what I know and what I don’t know, and I’m reminded that one-way communication will not be effective going forward. Instead, I need to create more opportunities for authentic engagement from all parts and levels of the organization.”
  • “I am surprised how well our employees have adapted.”
  • “The more time I make available to truly emotionally connect with our employees, the more they feel like we care about them as human beings. I have been surprised how meaningful that is to me.”

The words that these leaders used — more connected; more meaningful conversations; increase my capacity for empathy; address fear and anxiety head-on; foster trust and transparency; authentic communication; and care about them as human beings — are illuminating to us.

What do you take away from their comments?

Have you experienced similar or different feelings?

Our takeaway is this: COVID-19 has accelerated in many cases the need to make the workplace more humanized. COVID-19 has brought emotions “out of the workplace closet” to the front lines. Leaders are having to acknowledge and address workers’ anxieties and fears in ways that help them cope.

That requires showing people that you care about them. It requires spending time in each meeting checking in with them and sharing your emotional vulnerability. It requires having group meetings just for the purpose of having people emotionally connect or engage in activities that build emotional resiliency and emotional positivity.

Everybody wants to be part of something special and to be valued as a unique human being. Leaders can reach so many more people virtually than they ever reached in the old way of working. Use that opportunity, via technology, to reach out to hundreds or thousands of people at a time and connect with them emotionally, as an authentic human being, leaving behind the behaviors and mindsets of hierarchy, power and rank.

In 2017, Ed wrote about the coming Digital Age and how it will impact how we live and work.

“We are on the brink of a technology tsunami that will likely be as challenging and transformative for us as the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors. This tsunami will be led by artificial intelligence, increased global connectivity, the Internet of Things, major advances in computing power, and virtual and augmented reality. As a result, the Smart Machine Age will fundamentally change the availability and nature of human work and make obsolete the dominant Industrial Revolution model of business organization and leadership.” 

Little did he know that the transformation predicted in 2017 would be accelerated in 2020 because of a virus.  

What began as a global crisis has created a unique opportunity for leaders to reflect and refine their approach to leadership. Almost to the person, the leaders we talked to have realized that connection and belonging are foundational organizational needs that require intention and attention. It is an opportunity for leaders to reimagine how they lead. Here are a few questions that may help you reimage how you lead:

  • What is your new vision for the future? 
  • What assumptions about how work is currently done are you questioning? 
  • How are you role modeling and encouraging courage and resilience in the face of uncertainty? 
  • Are you wondering if your organization lives its stated values? Do you need to revisit and refine your core values?
  • What new behaviors do you and your leadership team need to embrace in order to help your team members have more meaning in their work?
  • What behaviors do you need to eliminate because they inhibit the type of engagement your team members need and want from you?
  • Are you longing for things to “get back to normal,” or are you actively provoking the future “new normal?”   
  • Are you reimaging the workplace to better enable collaboration, monitor performance, promote engagement, maintain connection, retain agility and shift mindsets in a new, hybrid world? 
  • What will be your top people challenges in a post pandemic world? How are you addressing the challenges? What are unexpected opportunities that have emerged, and what made those opportunities possible? How do you plan to embrace those opportunities?  
  • How has what you are learning shaped your organization’s return-to-work plans? 

Based on our experience, we expect that your deep reflections and having “making meaning together” conversations with others will surface these themes: humility, compassion, caring, trust, positive emotional engagement, curiosity, generosity, reflection and resilience.

We encourage you to embrace this opportunity to take your leadership to a higher or different level. Leaders set the tone at their organizations through their behaviors and their words. That tone can generate positive emotions or negative emotions in people and the workplace.

Leaders have a choice. We urge you to choose wisely.

Edward D. Hess is Professor of Business Administration, Batten Fellow and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change,” (Berrett-Koehler, 2020).

Mary Brackett is a Senior Associate in the University of Virginia’s Office of Organizational Excellence. 

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