author, and researcher on organizational leadership Warren Bennis often said, “managers do things
right, leaders do the right thing.”
The past 12
months have truly tested that mantra; 2020 found us all careening from one
crisis to another: A pandemic that has killed more than two million people
worldwide, global economic crisis that has left ten-of-millions of the most
vulnerable unemployed, social upheavals that put a spotlight on the harsh
reality of racial inequality, and political turmoil that tested the democracies
in many countries.
times it has felt as if society were having a collective nervous breakdown. All
of this upheaval has forced a multitude of changes to society, education, work,
and business. It has also driven distinct changes in the ways in which leaders
guide their organizations, according to research by the Institute for Corporate
the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020), i4cp began facilitating
weekly crisis response calls open to leaders of organizations worldwide. These
calls grew over time to number hundreds of online events that also served to
drive data collection via weekly pulse surveys. During these calls, we heard
numerous stories of leaders doing the right thing—guiding their
organizations through the turmoil with humanity, humility, and compassion.
what did these courageous leaders do differently?
there a consistent set of leadership behaviors that became more important in
answer those questions, i4cp recently conducted a comprehensive global study—Leadership
Redefined—that asked respondents to compare the importance of a multitude
of leadership behaviors at the beginning of 2020 to now. As part of this
research, we have also reviewed numerous articles citing alarming increasing in
stress and anxiety in the workforce, which leads to drops in productivity and engagement.
With all this in mind, the study
aims to determine if a consistent set of leadership behaviors become more
important in organizations that saw increased levels of engagement, healthier
organizational culture, strong alignment with their purpose/mission, and increased market performance
(revenue growth, profitability, market share, and customer satisfaction) in
2020 versus 2019.
the data is still being analyzed, five themes have begun to develop:
- Leaders are more focused on employee well-being. Leaders gained an
unfiltered view into their employees’ lives outside of the office in 2020 and
observed all the demands employees were dealing with. In response, effective leaders
demonstrated authentic empathy and compassion to their employees, and actively
worked to ensure that they were providing their workforces a psychologically
safe work environment.
- Transparency became a key ingredient for success. Leaders focused on clear
and frequent communication in the early days of the pandemic. They worked hard
to make sure everyone was informed on matters that affected them, but more
importantly, their communication strategy was designed to create a sense of
community, connection, and belonging.
- Leaders sought to understand. For many leaders, active
listening became more important than giving direction. They listened to the
workforce and respected others’ points of view and concerns and paid attention
to their opinions and feelings.
- Leaders became more agile. As strategies and priorities seemed to change overnight,
leaders quickly identified and prioritized new opportunities. They also
broke down silos and shared learning and best practices across the organization
to create a more agile environment.
- They developed a digital mindset. With work suddenly disrupted and
remote in many cases, leaders were required to use new platforms to communicate
and collaboration. In parallel, they had to accelerate employee adoption of
and preparation for new technology and digital processes.
The question at hand
is whether the changes in leadership behavior experienced in 2020 were simply the
result of responding to the numerous crises, or whether they will remain
changed going forward. When asked this question in the recent leadership behaviors
study, two-thirds of the
respondents indicated that changes their organization adopted in 2020 will
“strengthen its ability to achieve its strategic goals in 2021 and beyond.”
It’s naïve to believe
that just because we turned the calendar to 2021 everything will or has
changed. The pandemic still rages (although there is hope with new vaccines).
But there are new variants of the COVID-19 virus emerging as well as upticks in
infection rates in regions of the world that had previously seemed to have
contained spread. And as we all well know, the economy will not recover until
we conquer the pandemic.
And even once the
pandemic is behind us, other critical challenges remain. Realistically, we
cannot snap our fingers and reverse hundreds of years of racial inequity or
close decades of deep political divisions. As a result, courageous leadership
behaviors will be needed more than ever.
One thing is certain:
as we start to come out of these multiple crises, we will not view the leadership
behaviors that became priorities in 2020 as novel, but rather as standard,
effective, and necessary ways to lead successful organizations into the future.
About Leadership Redefined
The multiple crises of 2020 have
significantly altered what it means to be a successful leader. In our Leadership
Redefined study, we examine the leadership behaviors that both increased
and decreased in importance—and what this means for leadership in the years to
come. Through a series of data analyses, case studies, infographics, and tools,
this study will help shine a light on behaviors organizations should emphasize
when hiring, developing, and promoting the leaders who will guide their
organizations into the future.