Leadership Myths for the Pandemic and How L&D Can Help Address Them

The current climate of uncertainty will continue to generate scenarios where new realities crash into traditional thinking in leadership. Those kinds of situations are tailor-made for Learning and Development (L&D).

As the Coronavirus marches on and businesses adapt, there are obvious shifts in how work gets done that Learning and Development (L&D) has helped to facilitate—such as how to collaborate in a remote work setting, how to lead with greater empathy in uncertain times, or just how to have an online presence that includes as little of your cat as possible. At the same time, the collision of the new present with our comfortable past has begun to generate some myths around leading in this environment—myths that, left unchecked, can have far-reaching implications for the performance of our organizations and the engagement of our people.

Let’s hold up three of these leadership myths to the light, and explore how L&D can help leaders lead more powerfully going forward.

Leadership Myth #1: We Can Figure This Out

This is myth #1 because it leads to all the other myths. In the world of leadership and management, the three most feared words have always been, “I don’t know.” This has held true in my discussions with leaders around the world over the last few months, where the consistent underlying question has been, “Can someone predict for me what is going to happen so I can put a strategy together to deal with it?” We as leaders are wired to do exactly that—define the problem and then figure out a way to deal with it. We don’t know how to deal with “I don’t know.”

The biggest leadership myth is that we can use our traditional, cause-and-effect thinking and annual operating plans in the same way we always have. We just have to figure this pandemic thing out. So to bust this myth, the leadership challenge is to open ourselves up to different approaches and tools that are designed for much greater levels of uncertainty. Think of the way a sports coach leads her team—she comes to the game with a strategy, a set of tactics, a deep knowledge of her opponent, and a team ready to compete. But just a few minutes into the game, she is already adapting, watching what emerges. Conducting experiments on her team and the other team. And adapting some more.

This mindset for dealing with uncertainty is a critical shift for leadership, running much deeper than most leaders understand. L&D has an amazing opportunity to bring a new tool set and mindset to leaders, and to find leaders who do this more naturally and celebrate their approach. Both/And Leadership, leading through paradoxical situations, even just experimentation and failing fast—these types of tools and approaches are much more appropriate for today’s organizational climate.

Leadership Myth #2: My People Are Adjusting to the New Normal

In the old days of organizational development, we had models of change that talked about “unfreezing” and “refreezing” of organizations—change would happen and then it would stop. Once it stopped, people would adjust. Today, there is no stopping for the change, so even if your people seem to be engaged and know how to be productive in this environment, we have not arrived at anything resembling a steady state. And we probably won’t for a long time—if ever. This means the stress level of our people overall likely is still very high and may be increasing. Even if their own job is secure, they may have a spouse out of work. Or there is uncertainty about schools opening or not. Even returning to the office can drive stress levels higher because of the uncertainty and risk it may pose for them.

In this climate, leaders should not get comfortable that “we’re getting into a groove now” with the team. Over-communication, empathy, and compassion are as critical now as the day the office closed. L&D plays a big role in helping leaders lead well now. Frequent reinforcement of human skills and general Emotional Intelligence will help leaders keep an accurate read of the climate of their teams, and to respond appropriately.

To help employees, L&D teams should ensure that all have increased access to learning tools, whether they are returning to the office or are continuing to work remotely. Having online tools available at any time allows for a more curated experience that can be tailored to each learner, leading to material that easily relates and is contextualized to their challenges. Virtual learning also allows for greater knowledge retention and a greater likelihood of application on the job. When combined with virtual reflection forums, online learning can provide a growth environment where participants are not left alone in their journeys but instead can connect and learn socially with their peers, wherever they might be.

Leadership Myth #3: I’m FineI Should Just Focus on the Team

Maybe not. In my engagement with leaders lately, there is a concerning lack of self-care going on, as leaders take upon themselves the stress of the current environment and pour themselves into the work of the organization and the issues of their people. Admirable, but not sustainable. This is on top of dealing with their own version of all the uncertainty and stress that everyone else is trying to handle right now.

In a time when empathy, listening, and connecting with people is the mantra, a leader’s first order of business is to get his or her own self together. People know when their manager’s tank is empty and their ability to read the temperature of their team, be present, and deal with the pressure of business and unpredictable human emotion is directly tied to their personal capacity and state of being.

Leaders can be the model for self-care for their teams by first creating a sense of balance for themselves. For example, schedule time for workouts, a bike ride with the kids, or movie night. Additionally, with many people still expecting to work from home at least part of the time, leaders can establish new rituals and rhythms in the day and week that promote balance. For example, they can schedule time to step away from their computers, begin and end the day with specific “transition” tasks, and even designate different spaces in the home for work and non-work activities. Even committing to an hour without picking up a mobile device at the end of the workday can be restorative. These types of activities can take the important role of transition that used to be built into a morning or evening commute.

While having learning sessions on these types of topics may seem like the job of a team besides L&D, Learning leaders can put a focus on these critical areas—not just for employees, but specifically for leaders. Leaders face unique challenges when it comes to taking care of themselves first so they can be strong for their teams and their peers. By addressing this mindset shift head on, you can support a culture shift that is much more pronounced because of leaders modeling the way.

Look Out for New Myths

This climate of uncertainty will continue to generate scenarios where new realities crash into traditional thinking in leadership. Those kinds of situations are tailor-made for L&D. We are meant to be inherently curious, looking for areas where people’s sense-making systems are out of alignment with how things are changing. By keeping our eyes open to the new, we can help our leaders continue to adapt to new challenges.

Larry Clark is managing director of Global Learning Services at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning (HBPCL).

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