Identifying the new workplace leader amid COVID 19

Saikat Saha
June 10, 2020

Global business is in a state of crisis, reeling under the effect of COVID 19 pandemic. Importantly, the signs are clear that the world of business shall irrevocably be altered by this crisis. It stands to reason that leadership of such a world may also look different.

It ‘seems’ the current crisis is significantly different because COVID 19 has redefined what a crisis is based on the lived experiences of people across the world:

1. Most crisis we have faced in the last few decades were relatively short lived or at least we had a vague understanding of till when the crisis would linger.

2. No crisis has ever generated the quantum of information (also misinformation) that COVID 19 did.

3. The speed at which the pandemic is affecting the economies, people’s mental & physical well-being has not been experienced in the last few decades.

This means there are different & more expectations from leaders.

Here we attempt to answer few questions to gain clarity about the context in which the new workplace leaders have to be identified. We explore the emerging expectations from them & what they need to do to fulfil those expectations.

This will lead us towards the understanding of how to identify the new workplace leaders amidst COVID 19.

What makes COVID 19 an unparalleled crisis?

Most pandemics in last 20 years i.e SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu did not have much economic implication. With nationwide lock downs in most countries due to COVID 19, the implications are severe on health, economic, workplace parameters among-st others. This study by Investopedia offers a good read on what the limited historical data around economic impact of pandemics looked like and what could be the massive economic impact of COVID 19 to the world economy.

In April 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “The world faces the most challenging crisis since World War II, confronting a pandemic threatening people in every country, one that will bring a recession that probably has no parallel in the recent past.”

There is estimated 33 million job loss in US alone according to The Guardian ‘s report on 9th May 2020 and the worldwide estimate could be 195 million according to United Nations.  The IMF noted that even a short-lived outbreak would drag the world into a 3% GDP contraction and a resurgence of COVID 19 in 2021 could leave economies struggling for years to come. To quote Bloomberg’s news report on 8th May 2020, “ The labor market has cratered in the U.S., the U.K. is looking at its worst economic setback in centuries and joblessness in the euro area is soaring”.

According to UNDP “Income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries. With an estimated 55 per cent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition.”

The very essence of how value at work is being generated & the context in which it is happening has undergone massive change.

An example of it from the individual employee’s lens would be the soaring career insecurity. Salary cuts & job losses are rampant.

From an organization’s lens, one of the many elements that has changed is how they are being forced to find digital means to stay connected. We all have witnessed the memes around how firms have attributed credit to COVID 19 instead of their respective Chief Digital Officers for driving the digital agenda.

We are more connected than ever before with virtual tools but we regret the circumstances that led us towards it. Information Security is at all time high risk especially when data is the key resource in business today.  ZOOM has been caught in a pile of controversies related to its privacy according to India Today’s report on 16th April 2020. Also, according to Business Today’s report on 8th May 2020, Maze Ransomware could cost one of the world’s largest IT company $ 50-$ 70 million and impact may continue beyond Q2.

As employees work from home, companies are measuring & tracking more closely the outputs that they are producing. The thin line between office work and personal work is also getting diluted and daily trade off between office work & personal work would only lead to anxiety& stress levels reaching the peak.

As few companies start working in physical spaces, social distancing at office may impact the usual office camaraderie and instill fear of getting infected by the virus.

With very limited or no in person meeting, its going to get harder for leaders to understand accurately the emotions that the team members are going through. This may lead to team members becoming actively disengaged from their work like never before and they may hit an all time low morale at work.

There could be many more reasons that can signal why COVID 19 is an unique crisis that leaders have to navigate through.But in our opinion, never ever in the last few decades, workplace leaders have had to deal with so many consequences from a single pandemic or event at large.

What is the new workplace leader expected to do?

While the specifics of what is expected from the workplace leader now is driven & defined by their immediate context, there are few common expectations from all leaders during this crisis as below:

Navigate the information overload

Leader must have access to reliable information. While all leaders have access to information available in public domain either for free or for a premium but what provides them advantage over others is their network. Their network can provide opportunity to find more information or validate existing information. The popular narrative about everyone having equal access to information is incorrect and that’s why the need to have more relevant information on which leaders can form the basis of their decision.

Not just the existing network of a Leader but building network at a rapid & purposeful manner that  aligns with the need of the business is critical.

The key question here is what does the leader needs to learn (very) quickly in order to:

1. Leverage the existing network by asking purposeful questions and being proactive in adding value to them also in return.

2. Expand the network by establishing the clarity for self on whom to reach out to and whom not to.

3. Do quick and as accurate sense making as possible of the information they receive from the network.

4. Communicating the key message from the sense making effectively & meaningfully to the right stakeholders to gain their perspectives.

Collaborate- Know how much & with whom

The tendency for leaders to overtly rely on their intuition or even rational thinking in making key decisions with available information at their disposal can be limiting. A leader’s need to find a quick hack to understand the point of view from key stakeholders magnify during a crisis. These key stakeholders should be able to look at the same information available from different lens and provide perspectives that could be critical for decision making.

Ensuring this inclusiveness is hard during a crisis as time, resources & attention are scarce yet inclusiveness is needed the most. There is no other time than a crisis like COVID 19 where your stakeholders have the want & need to feel more included as there is lack of either confidence or clarity or both at their end.

With whom the leader collaborates and to what extent calls for making choices that are both rational and empathetic. The right balance of reasoning & empathy can make decision making process faster, more reliable and better aligned with goals of the firm while ensuring the stakeholders stay deeply committed to the team goals.

Not simply set but ‘seek’ direction as well

Human beings irrespective of their legacy or ambition, are limited due to their FLAB (fears, assumptions, biases and limited beliefs). In hindsight, crisis can make leaders feel as if the crisis is designed to make them focus on how limited they are before they realize how limitless they are.

In zen practice, monks often preach (& practice) that what we focus on expands. With a crisis of this magnitude glaring at the leader, she is compelled to identify, acknowledge & reflect at their FLAB (fears, assumptions, biases and limited beliefs) and find ways to focus on what lies beyond it.

In times of crisis, its very challenging for leaders to make any significant impact by themselves alone. While they must come across as confident & composed, they should derive the confidence & composure from both what they know and more importantly what they would get to know from their team members.

Classical leadership theories expect leaders to set direction for the team. While in crisis, someone needs to lead, but its not the designated leader (by virtue of position) who has to lead always.

However, the leader needs to identify the individual or in some cases a small group of individuals who can lead the team in accomplishing the goals.

Once the leader identifies who is going to lead a specific mission, she should abstain from providing the direction (Only needs to help them stay anchored to the common purpose about why the firm exists) but instead seek the direction from them itself.

Care deeply

As simplistic as it may sound, a leader is expected to always care and more so during a crisis. She is expected to care for its team, customers, vendors and everyone who are part of the value chain & even beyond.

To quote from the book ‘Rehumanising Leadership’ by Sudhanshu Palsule & Michael Chavez “To care is to deeply understand the purpose behind why we do what we do, and to bring that sense of purpose into every leadership conversation we have, every leadership action we take and every leadership behaviour we display”

While in a crisis like COVID 19, much needs to rightfully change but the business must truly have clarity on what it cares the most and that must not change at any cost.

Infusing that clarity about what the business truly cares about and ensuring everyone understands that well is the key expectation from a workplace leader.

What must the new workplace leader do to meet the expectations?

For a leader to meet the expectations, she must lead in a way that’s decisive yet inclusive, bold yet calm, intuitive yet well informed, foresighted yet grounded in reality, nimble footed yet patient. The quest is about recognizing leaders with such paradoxical qualities.

The leader may not find individuals who fits the bill completely, but they make choices with what they have access to and then prioritize some qualities over the other to identify them.

A workplace leader needs most (if not all) of the following attributes/support to fulfil the expectations from them:

1. Result Oriented

If leaders do not have clarity and specificity about the results; its hard to get a reality check and fine tune their judgments about the path they are helping their teams to commit towards.

2. Walk the talk

During a crisis, the leader needs to lead by virtue of his action and not merely words. Its demanding and hence along with his action orientation she needs to be calm &collected in doing so.

3. Self driven

The leaders need to be intrinsically driven. The drive needs to be based on deep self awareness about their strengths & limitations and also the social awareness through their innate ability to empathize. During a crisis, the leader is expected to reflect much faster in order to apply their learning in execution. Only through their self & social awareness they can keep a balance between rapid application& reflection.

4. Growth Mindset

According to brain pickings, Growth Mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience. The leader during a crisis needs to adopt a Growth Mindset as against Fixed Mindset. Operating with a Growth Mindset is hard during a crisis but there is no better & valuable choice.

5. Perceptual acuity

According to Ram Charan in his book ‘Attacker’s Advantage’, “perceptual acuity is the psychological and mental preparedness to “see around corners” and spot potentially significant anomalies, contradictions, and oddities in the external landscape before others do.” This ability of external sensing and connecting the dots with what is core to the strength of the firm is critical during these times.

6. Meaningfully interactive

For engaging with people and engaging on real issues, the most frequently used medium is Conversation. The opportunities for conversations during a crisis is greater and the leader must participate in such conversations to learn more about others through clarity, honesty, empathy, courage & hope.

7. Systemic

A system is a process, procedure, path to get to the results. This path incorporates the methods of behavioural and performance change. If we do not have a path that is simple to understand and easy to follow, execution would be inconsistent leading to inconsistent results. A leader needs to ensure that the existing system is designed to deal with decisiveness and execution excellence during the crisis and make changes to the system accordingly yet very swiftly.

How to find the new workplace leader?

As a senior leader, to find the right workplace leaders is extremely challenging during a crisis. One can only design the context in which the leader can emerge, lead & thrive while leading.

So the question is reframed to what a senior leader can do to create the condition in which the leader can emerge, lead & thrive while leading?

The answer is she can do only so little but do it as well as she truly can:

1. Clarify the purpose and instill the belief in the relevance of the organization’s purpose during the current times.

2. Create the psychological safety for employees to express themselves openly and contribute in ways that stem from their completeness and know what is incomplete in their being.

3. Clearly, directly yet empathetically mention what definitely changes, what definitely doesn’t change in the business and what we are still unsure about in the present.

4. Be honest & committed about what you would do for the business, for the employees , for the customers and for the other stakeholders.

5. Ask what the team members/stakeholders are most energized and happy to create value for and most importantly enable them to create that value by unleashing their potential.

6. Deeply care about themselves and everyone.

“When written in Chinese, the word‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.

— John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S.president.

1. Bloomberg articles - Charting the global economy week was one for the record books, 08/05/2020.
2. Forbes article - by Zack Friedman on Covid 19 future of work.
3. Brain - Carol Dweck's book mindset, 01/29/2014.
4. Economist - Lessons from the front line, 18/04/2020.
5. article.
6. Investopedia - Special economic impact of pandemics.
7. UNDP News - COVID19 Crisis in developing countries threatens devastate economies.
8. India today story - Technology features story Indian govt advisory says avoid using zoom, why and what to do if you have to use zoom, 16/04/2020.
9. Business today story- Current corporate maze ransomware costs cognizant 50-70 million Q1 impact to continue beyond Q2.