Leadership for a New Era

COVID-19 has changed the game, and in the future, caring for employees’ well-being will become a significant management priority.

In summer 2020, I hosted a Virtual Leadership Summit in which I interviewed more than 20 thought leaders. Some of them were former CEOs and top executive coaches, while others were influencers. One of the questions I asked each of them was: How do you predict leadership will change in the future as a result of the global pandemic?

A clear theme emerged: COVID-19 has changed the game, and in the future, caring for employees’ well-being will become a significant management priority.

A Perfect Storm

The last year has been a perfect storm of five global crises:

  • The global pandemic is creating life-and-death choices while increasing loneliness that was an epidemic before COVID-19.
  • The economic crisis as businesses have been forced to shut down and layoffs have become the norm in many industries.
  • The racial crisis of Black Lives Matter brought to the forefront long-standing systemic injustices.
  • A crisis of leadership through lack of consistent messaging and policies. The virus is not partisan, yet our leaders are divided and giving mixed messages that hurt us all.
  • A larger global climate crisis that threatens all of us regardless of location, age, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

As one crisis builds on the next, it is easy to long for the way life used to be. While we don’t know what the new reality will be after COVID-19, most authorities are telling us the world will not return to normal as we know it.

In March 2020, when the Coronavirus was initially spreading across the United States, Krista Tippett, creator and host of the podcast, On Being, described how the change affected her: “The world had shifted on its axis.” Tippett lives in Minneapolis and witnessed protesters in her neighborhood. For her, the world “shifted again, and it was right here.”

McKinsey consultants Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, Kevin Sneader, and Kurt Strovink have advised hundreds of CEOs since the pandemic first hit. They wrote in “The CEO Moment: Leadership for a New Era” that an opportunity exists “to lead in new, more positive, and impactful ways.” As Rajnish Kumar, chairman of the State Bank of India, reflected, “This will be a true inflection point…in terms of implications, it will be as big an event as World War II. And whatever we learn through this process, it must not go to waste.”

Elevate “To Be” to the Same Level as “To Do”

Frances Hesselbein, president and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Institute, likes to say that “leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are.” This is exactly what Deward, Keller, Sneader, and Strovink discovered.

“In a moment of crisis, everyone looks to their leader,” they noted, and they found CEOs especially felt this during the pandemic. David Schwimmer, CEO of London Stock Exchange Group, says, “People are looking to me for a different kind of leadership. In a normal environment, it’s about business leadership and setting strategy, as well as culture and people decisions. In this environment, it’s about helping people maintain morale. It’s about people being prepared for whatever may come in the face of uncertainty.”

As a result, the McKinsey consultants found leaders are starting to use a different lens to take notice of how members of their senior team operate. As I concluded in my Virtual Leadership Summit, they found the most notable feature of how CEOs are leading differently is they are showing more of their humanity. Many leaders have tried to create a stronger, more cohesive and motivated workforce.

Their research indicated the value of leaders “truly listening to, relating to, and connecting with people where they are—there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company.” They found that many CEOs were positively surprised that “bringing more of themselves into the workplace created connection and motivation.”

Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen, gave these examples of how he has elevated “to be” to the same level as “to do.” “The very first week we set up a daily executive management meeting at 5 p.m. That’s important from a decision-making point of view, but it’s even more important for touching base and showing empathy. We’re now in each other’s homes—you’re seeing my study, and we’ve met each other’s families…I asked all my direct reports, ‘Is there someone who wants me to reach out to someone who’s doing a great job or someone who’s struggling? Maybe someone who has a relative with COVID-19?’ Sometimes all that’s needed is a word of encouragement to show you care. It’s been a great gift to be able to do that for the people in AmerisourceBergen.”

Questions to Ask

Elevating “to be” should change how CEOs and their organizations select, train, coach, recognize, and reward leaders. As CEOs make this shift permanent, the McKinsey consultants concluded that CEOs in conjunction with their chief human resources officer, should ask these questions:

  • “What will I look for differently in leaders as a result of what I’ve learned during the pandemic?
  • What actions should I take in the near term to reinforce what “being” attributes will be of elevated importance going forward?
  • How can these attributes be hardwired into our people to ensure they are institutionalized in how we develop, reward, and promote?”
Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit http://www.JannFreed.com