None of us have experienced anything like the impact, disruption and devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time of writing we have seen over 6m confirmed cases and 380,000 deaths caused by the virus across 212 countries worldwide with the numbers still rising.
Almost every country has gone in to some form of lockdown and social isolation. Businesses are being forced to shut down, millions of people have been furloughed and many more have lost their jobs. Many economies are on the verge of mass unemployment and unprecedented recession.
We are not only paying a financial price but also a psychological one. Many will have had first-hand experience of what it is like to lose a loved one or friend to the virus or at least been through the emotional turmoil of supporting someone with severe symptoms. As the uncertainty of the future intensifies, so does the impact on stress levels and anxiety. A new research report by the Kaiser Foundation found that in the US nearly a half of the people polled confirmed the virus was having a negative effect on their mental health. There is enormous concern for future health and job prospects driven by the uncertainty.
In every crisis, leadership is both required and even more critical. We have no experience of dealing with such a large and deep scale pandemic.
So, how does leadership need to adapt?
The most critical leadership attribute right now is EMPATHY. The ability to understand and share the feelings and emotions of another human being are essential both during the crisis and when employees return to work. Your employees are going through hugely testing times both for them and their families for their health and financial wellbeing. Only through listening and empathising will a leader generate the trust and two way communication required to support and inspire their employees through to the next new normal. This isn’t just a one-off event or discussion – concerns for health, jobs and the wider economy are likely to be with people for months. Simple acts of compassion and understanding can go a long way to improving mental wellbeing and to allow people to become re-engaged.
One unique aspect of this crisis is the enforced physical distancing that is necessary. Part of the leadership role is ensuring that no barriers exist between individuals, teams and functions. This will likely continue for some time. Leaders will have to lead by example and demonstrate that physical distancing does not inhibit team working and the creation of social barriers.
The second most important attribute is RESPECT. Treating everyone as an individual human being. Recognising that their needs are different, trusting them, respecting their wishes and current circumstances will be an essential way to deal with the domestic turmoil and working patterns being forced on much of society.
The third attribute is the ability to demonstrate COURAGE and act with certainty. Many of the decisions facing leaders will be critical to business survival and need to be taken in a timely manner. The best leaders will be brave enough to make the tough decisions – but ensure any employees that are affected are treated respectfully through the process. Demonstrate trust, by involving your team in the decisions, always ensuring that you do the right thing both operationally and morally. And, as a further act of courage, make sure that future leadership positions are filled only by those who demonstrate trust, respect and empathy.
There are some great examples of these core leadership attributes in action as the world fights to manage the virus:
In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, showed great respect when she addressed the country’s children through an interactive TV address where she respectfully responded to real time questions. During the address she took the time to empathetically explain why it was ok to feel scared right now.
In America, Starbucks is extending its employee mental health programme for employees and their family members. They’ll be able to get up to 20 sessions a year from a mental health therapist’s online platform.
LinkedIn made 16 of its courses free. It’s also giving people advice on how to stay productive, and how virtual teams can collaborate.
But you don’t have to be big to demonstrate the right behaviours and make a difference. There are multiple examples every day of individual leaders and small businesses supporting their local communities for no material gain.
The challenge is simple, how do we capture the spirit and the essence of these acts in how we lead in the future?
As a leader, now is the time to take personal responsibility, remain open to learning and ‘practice what you preach’. Feel daunted by it, that’s natural – reach out, that’s a sign of strength, not weakness.
The global workforce will eventually return to work but uncertainty and anxiety will be a scar that takes time to heal. What we believe you will find is that the same leadership attributes that have guided you through this period, will be those that demonstrate their value in each and every leadership situation. We can herald ‘A New Era of Leadership’.
About the Future Work Forum:
The FWF exists to explore the working world of tomorrow. It is a think tank and network of highly skilled experts who share a passion to create a better, more humanised workplace, inspiring a new generation of leaders.