How 2020 Changed What it Means to Be a Leader
Scholar, 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.
Indeed, at 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 Productivity (i4cp).
At 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.
So, what did these courageous leaders do differently?
Was there a consistent set of leadership behaviors that became more important in 2020?
To 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.
While 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.