How to Become a Great Pandemic-Era Leader

Published November 16, 2020

What does it look like to lead in a pandemic era, with COVID raging on, civil unrest all around, and a global shift in health, perspective, and politics? To answer this question, we spoke with leaders in all different industries to share how their leadership has changed since COVID.

In speaking with these people, we uncovered the five tenets of courageous community building within workplaces: Unity, action, communication, agility, and empathy. Here’s how and why you need to bring these tenets into your leadership practice during our pandemic era.

Bring Unity to the Forefront

United we stand, divided we fall. It’s a phrase we’ve heard hundreds of times, and yet again, our world—and, more specifically, the communities within our companies—must come together, united as one. Countries and companies do well when we find common ground in a common cause to overcome a common foe. 

While a global pandemic, civil unrest, and political uprisings may not seem like topics that you, as a leader, need to consider in your role in the workplace, your role has shifted. As leaders in these uncertain times, when stress levels and anxiety are at an all-time high, we need to lead with empathy, transparency, and unity, being courageous community leaders for our teams.

Uniting your team doesn’t mean you need to share your personal beliefs and opinions. Instead, you need to adapt your leadership skills. As Elena Carstoiu, COO of Hubgets reminds us:

“The Coronavirus pandemic might have taken the world by storm, but it didn’t change the guiding principles of leadership: transparent communication, hands-on mentorship, focus on mental and physical health, constant feedback, engagement, and empathy. The only changes lie in how these fundamentals are delivered and their pace of implementation.”

Bring unity to your remote- and in-house teams using the leadership principles you’ve always followed—but remember that empathy and transparency are more important than ever.

Don’t Ignore Communication

We all know that we need to communicate with our team, board members, stakeholders, and customers. Still, Bob Flynn, CEO of Deflecto, gives clarity around what that means as a leader during a pandemic era:

“I believe that real-time and frequent communication from leadership is more important than ever during these difficult times. Make it transparent, clear, and concise, so people know where they stand.” 

While this is critical for managing shifts in regulations, company policies, and the like, it’s also crucial for our employees’ mental health. As Flynn continues, “Any sense of normalcy about their company, career, and job can make the rest of the world and its issues easier to bear and take on.”

Be Agile and Ready to Shift

No one is certain about how the world might shift from the time we hit the pillow at night to the moment we wake up, which is why Michael Pellegrino, President & Chief Growth Officer of Sargento Foods, has focused heavily on agility within his organization. 

“We quickly learned the need for agility because some things were simply out of our control. Our normal planning playbook was definitely thrown out, but we knew we could leverage our capabilities across branding, innovation, and customer service to maintain our vital role in the nation’s food supply and keep our business growing.”

We, as leaders, need to lead by example through our agile decision-making. When employees see our agility, they’re empowered to, in turn, be agile in their own role. Yes, this may mean mistakes are made. Yes, this may mean that we learn lessons the hard way. But it also means that our organization is prepared for whatever headlines meet us each morning. 

Show Empathy Above All

Empathy has become somewhat of a buzzword in the business world since the onset of COVID, and for a good reason, as Pellegrino says: “Whether it’s remote work, new childcare needs, or figuring out our optimal team dynamic over video. We’re all a lot smarter than we were six months ago, but we need to keep listening and adjusting based on whatever comes our way in the future.”

Bill Gadala, CFO of Vera Security, brings the importance of this empathy to the forefront: “Without a larger dose of empathy, you risk alienating people, which hurts them and others in the team, as well as yourself.”

This is also a fundamental tenet for Scott Baxter, President & CEO of Kontoor Brands. Baxter explains, “You never really know what’s going on in someone’s life. Each day also reveals new headlines about the consequences of systemic racism and inequities, which is deeply troubling.” 

As leaders, we need to shift our focus toward empathy now and in the future. 

Become a Great Pandemic-Era Leader

One thing is clear from all of these leaders: long gone are the days of one-note leadership. Leaders today, especially during a pandemic, must be multifaceted in ways we didn’t need to be in years past. Doug Gladstone, Managing Director of Comhar Partners, sums this up well, saying:  

“A good leader needs to step up on multiple fronts not only focusing on driving his/her company’s bottom line, but they now need to focus equally on their employee’s immediate needs and stay current on economic changes and how such could impact their overall business operations.”

As we continue to run our companies and lead our teams, don’t forget about what it means to be a good leader in today’s world, during a time of societal unrest, a global health pandemic, and political uncertainty.

As leaders, we must continue to be action-oriented, empathetic, communicative, and agile. If we can bring all these key skills into our roles each day, we can bring unity and purpose to a world that’s divisive and ever-changing.

About the Authors

Bernard Layton and J. James O’Malley are Co-Founders and Managing Directors of Comhar Partners, a leader in retained executive search, professional recruiting, and talent advisory services. Comhar is derived from the Gaelic word “collaboration.” They are headquartered in Chicago with specialized recruiting consultants based in six offices across the United States.

*This article was originally published in RealLeaders. Check out the original posting here.

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