“I’ve been through some tough times as a leader, but 2020 has really tested my mettle,” a client of mine shared recently.
For many in the C-suite and those depending on them, this year has been a whirlwind of change and ambiguity — punctuated by anxiety and fear, marked by sorrow and loss for so many and, yet, buoyed by hope and possibility. The combined challenges of a global pandemic, heightened instances of social injustice and a polarized political environment has created a learning laboratory for leadership.
As we approach the end of the year, what, I’ve wondered, are the take-home lessons? What attributes of leadership were most critical for navigating in this unprecedented time?
As I queried clients and colleagues with these same questions, six key attributes were consistently cited as essential for leading in this dynamic, complex and still unstable world:
Because each day has been so full of unknowns, flexibility made the top of the list for many of the individuals with whom I spoke.
“This year has taught me the importance of not getting too far ahead of myself,” said one client. “Even when plans were set, I had to learn to remain open to continued change … which is a hard lesson for those of us who are planners.”
Capacity to make rapid decisions despite the associated uncertainty of a world in flux seemed to factor into leadership success as well.
“Those (leaders) who have struggled the least are the ones who are agile in their thinking, constantly assessing the landscape, and willing to pivot, even when they don’t have full information,” said executive coach Phyllis Sarkaria.
She describes these leaders as having “fast twitch” skills (like fast-twitch muscle fibers) that have enabled them to evolve as the situation demanded and manage through hazy business conditions.
The capacity to recover from setbacks, rise above challenges and help your team do the same is emblematic of great leadership in any year, but especially this one. It’s not that as a leader you’re immune to uncertainty, it’s that you choose to face it head on, with confidence that, collectively, you and your team will find a way to overcome difficulties. In a year where even the act of entering a workspace was a life-or-death decision, leaders with resilience have been invaluable.
In a tough and gritty world, it may seem incongruous to think of “grace” as a critical leadership attribute in 2020, yet it is essential for leading in times of crisis. Author, executive coach and host of LinkedIn Live’s “Grace Under Pressure” John Baldoni defines grace as “working for the greater good, with generosity and compassion.”
The catastrophic events of this year have certainly called upon leaders to demonstrate empathy because members of their team have endured suffering, loss, grief and frustration. People have not always been at their best in the workplace but acting with grace gives you the capacity to appreciate their struggle and support them through it.
“Grace enables leaders under pressure to keep it real, to act with the needs of others in mind, while piloting the organization in the right direction,” says Baldoni. Doing this when extreme circumstances have others panicked is the ultimate act of leadership.
In partnership with grace, authenticity has been an important leadership attribute citied by many of the leaders with whom I spoke.
Liz Moran, global head of talent at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, shared, “Everyone has struggled this year because of the pandemic. Whether it was because a family member or friend became ill, or life became inconvenient because we’ve had to work from home with family in the background.
I’ve found that when leaders have shown up authentically, teams have felt supported, and ‘OK’ even when they are not OK, because they know they are not alone,” she said. “Others are also going through a difficult time, which has brought people together.”
Acknowledging the reality of what you and others are experiencing without trying to pave over pain and ambiguity helps people see you as real, as in the trenches with them and as a valued ally for getting to a better place – and getting there together.
The pandemic has brought many of us face to face with who we are, who we want to be and how we want to contribute in the world. Unsurprisingly, many of my clients have become even more introspective, questioning the role they are playing in the organization and seeking deeper meaning and fulfillment from their work and personal relationships.
When the fundamental concepts on which we can rely are shaken — like our basic safety and how we move through life on a daily basis — it’s not surprising that we might reexamine everything in our life. That’s where purpose becomes such a powerful annealing substance, as individual seek a more profound connection to what matters most.
In a year fraught with uncertainty, the leaders I’ve worked with who have helped their teams anchor to a unifying purpose, both personally and organizationally, have been more successful in keeping their teams focused on solutions that lead to success.
Operating in a pandemic world has taught leaders a lot about the importance of communication. With tenuous certainty around work arrangements and the absence of opportunities for daily personal interactions, employees have struggled with both the logistics of getting work done as well as the isolation associated with working alone.
“What was striking after the pandemic is that we lost a lot of informal communications,” said George Cardoza, president of pharma services for cancer diagnostics company NeoGenomics. “We kept the official meetings, but I think we realized how much we rely on informal communications and things said during travel or dinners. It forced us to do more check ins with our team and more actively try to pull out concerns they may be having about projects.
We also had to really strive to keep our teams working-from-home feeling connected and still part of the team, compared to the lab teams that were still physically on site. … It certainly was a year like no other,” he said.
The path out of a global pandemic is a long and arduous journey, made brighter perhaps with multiple efficacious vaccines on the horizon. If a positive takeaway is possible, it’s that leaders may have also honed skills that will serve them and their organizations well in challenging times ahead.
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, December 2020.