3 Types of Leaders in the Pandemic Era

Leadership is being put through the crucible of character as never before by the ongoing global pandemic. The way leaders are reacting and responding to the crisis has been a study in the fine art of leadership. Indeed, the way in which leaders of nations, political parties, industry and commerce have been managing the affairs of their domain, has largely determined how successful their efforts have been. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the mindset with which the leaders are seeing the current situation. We are seeing 3 broad types of leadership mindsets at work

The Flat Earthers

Leaders in this category are in denial. They are convinced that the present situation is completely overblown and exaggerated, characterised by over-reaction and needless panic. They are angry at the disruption caused and are worried about achieving their targets, profits, revenues and bonuses. The message they give out to their people is aimed at minimising the impact of the situation and that it is going to be business as usual to a great extent. These Leaders would want their employees to be as productive as they can, even while working from home. Their focus is on getting the business back to speed as soon as possible while downplaying the long term risks and consequences on the lives and careers of their employees.

The Flat Earthers leadership style is characterised by reluctance to initiate large scale reforms, introducing ad hoc measures for the short term and by making incremental changes to the way of working. Flat earth leaders focus on external communication with their customers, suppliers and vendors much more than internal communication with employees. There is very less evidence of empathy and understanding while being very aggressive with cost cutting, employee restructuring and downsizing.

The Fence Sitters

These form the majority of leaders who have made a flying leap to the middle of the road. They are precariously trying to straddle the fence in terms of maintaining status quo and making the necessary reforms and bringing in changes. They are more confused rather than angry at the situation and the lack of concrete information is not helping them at all. While their hearts are in the right place in terms of being empathetic towards their employees, the are also worried about the impact this situation could have on the future of their companies and on their own careers. The fence sitting leaders are torn between proactively dealing with the situation and holding the line and continuity. While being more open to employees working from home and to adopting safety standards at work, these leaders are only looking at such measures as a short term necessity and look forward to a time when they could get back to the way things were.

The Fence Sitters’ leadership style is driven by the need to balance the safety of employees with the continuity of business and operational matters and this often leads to mixed signals being sent out to various stakeholders. Communication tends to be sporadic and sketchy in terms of firm action steps being taken by the leadership while being more ‘feel good’ and ‘motivational’ in nature. Employees are left conflicted between trying to stay safe and keep their line functions safe while ensuring operations continue without interruptions. The Fence Sitters management style is characterized by inertia, tokenism and cluelessness.

The Resolute Anchors

This minority of leaders are showing what it takes to steer organisations during times of crisis by displaying admirable courage, fortitude and pragmatism. They view the pandemic and the disruption it has caused as an adversity that has to be overcome and in doing so, grow; as leaders, as an organisation and as a society. Backed by a strong belief that team work and commitment followed by dedicated efforts would see them triumph, these leaders set to the task with determination and purpose. Their primary goal is to ensure the safety and security of the organisation’s assets, both physical and human capital. They have the ability to reassess priorities and take positive action.

The leadership style of the Resolute Anchors is a mix of empathy, genuine concern and calm response to the situation on hand. They desist from knee jerk reactions while keeping their options open. They are aware that they may have to take decisions based on incomplete and often times false data. They over communicate rather than under communicate as they know that employees are anxious and are depending on their leader to keep them abreast with what’s going on. The Resolute Anchors create a safe space within which employees are encouraged to come up with creative solutions, be critical of existing processes and vote down proposed actions. Above all, these leaders make themselves vulnerable in front of their employees and in doing so, earn their credibility and trust.

When the dust settles on this pandemic, there are going to be those organisations that are left standing and the many who would not and what determines who stands and who do not depends on the type of leadership that was on display. We are already seeing many operations fold due to lack of agility and the rigid processes and systems in place that may have served them well during steady state but woefully fall short in this changed paradigm. Ultimately, the organisations that are going to emerge stronger from this pandemic are the ones who will have the Resolute Anchors as leaders.

Leadership Skills in a Post COVID World

The global pandemic, a ‘black swan’ event if there has ever been one, has irrevocably changed not only our external world but also our internal world. The safe spaces and safety nets that we could retreat into or cushion our fall have all but disappeared. Our primal instincts of fight or flight are hijacking our rational and reasoned thinking. Our brains are conflicted between sticking with habits and behavior that we are used to and the new responses that are required today. How will this play out when it comes to leadership development in the coming days and years? As an Executive Coach, this subject is of special interest to me and hence, I decided to look for emerging data and new research on what today’s leaders thought would be the skills and behavior they would need to adopt to flourish in the new world.

My first task was to do a dip stick within my networks to understand the sentiment on the ground. I started with a series of polls within business communities as well as industry leadership groups. My quest was to determine how, if at all, the leadership perspective has shifted and the new priorities. The results showed that there was a marked shift in leadership focus; from steering business results to managing cash flows and costs; from developing human capital to enhancing employee security and wellbeing; from strategic objectives to maintaining business continuity. This was not surprising and an expected outcome. The findings were also corroborated through my chats with clients and colleagues.

Next, I delved into what new surveys and global research findings were suggesting. The Willis Towers Watson report for instance suggests that crisis handling and change management are the critical factors requiring attention from leaders. The World Economic Forum report looks at 6 intelligences including Contextual, Moral, Emotional, Generative, Technological and Transformative intelligences as a framework for leadership. Other research data seem to suggest that decision making is now more instinctual rather than reasoned and creative thinking is taking precedence over critical thinking.

Putting all this together, I’ve come up with 5 new core skills/behaviours that leaders have to develop or strengthen in the days ahead in order to not only deal with the present challenges but also in order to create the eco-system to withstand and rive in the fallout of this pandemic in the years to come. These 5 core skills/behaviours are:

  1. Purpose: Organizations and leaders need to move from revenues and profits towards purpose driven leadership. Employees need to know what they are working for and how that is going to contribute to their own lives as well as the community they live in. Leaders have to articulate and sustain the big picture view of why employees are expected to do what they do.
  2. Humility: If there is one thing this pandemic has shown it is that nobody has the answers; there are no experts and everyone is learning on the go.Employees are looking for leaders who are not afraid to show their vulnerability and display humility in learning and changing their own set ways even as they expect their employees to adapt and change.
  3. Agile Thinking: The world has to make do with much lesser resources and this is true for organizations of any size. Leaders need to think on their feet and pivot on a dime in order to keep the operations running smoothly in a VUCA environment.There is no room for procrastination or contemplating.
  4. Over-communication: One of the downsides of employees working from home is that they are not able to see the big picture and how what they are doing is fitting into the overall scheme of things. It is the leader’s responsibility to keep everybody aligned and updated with what’s happening across all levels through frequent and empathic communication.Employees expect their leaders to keep them in the know and nix rumours and fake news.
  5. Rapid Decision making: Leaders today have to learn to take decisions quickly even in the absence of complete data or even conflicting information. Gone are the days of consultative or collective decision making. Leaders today need to be able to quickly assess emerging situations, evaluate practical and cost effective solutions and take prompt and decisive action.

I believe that leaders of today and tomorrow need to recognize that the world has changed perhaps for ever and that what worked for them yesterday would not do so today. a mindset shift has to take place all around starting with people in leadership positions, a mindset that moves away from “business as usual” and towards “business that works” in the new paradigm. Leaders have to align their way of working with the business imperatives as well as employee expectations of how their lives and careers are going to be affected by what’s happening around us.

Team Coaching Vs Group Coaching

This is one question I get a lot from my prospective clients and I can quite understand why this may seem confusing. After all, aren’t groups and teams synonymous with collective performance and shared responsibilities? Absolutely, but from an executive coaching perspective, there are subtle differences and I wanted to unpack this today.

Team Coaching is about performance coaching for formal and informal teams who have a shared set of goals and objectives. Here, everyone in the team is aligned with the same final strategic objective, although each member may have their own set of sub-goals or objectives. The success of the project or strategic outcome depends on the entire team delivering as they are meant to. From the coaching perspective, the entire team is assessed as one unit and dysfunctional areas identified and worked on collectively. The final outcome is a team that is more aligned, works with better cohesion and with a greater degree of positivity, enthusiasm and result orientation.

e.g.- A project team within an organisation that is behind schedule or a team that is plagued by conflicts with people working at cross-purposes would be ideal team coaching targets.

Group Coaching refers to a group of people, all of who, have an overall similar objective or needs. Here, while the coaching is being done as a group, the coaching is targeted at each individual within the group. The progress each member of the group makes, would vary as each person would be starting from a different point. The final outcome of the coaching would be that the entire group is now more self-aware and able to recognize and cope with the central issue they are all facing.

e.g.- A group of people from within an organisation who would like to improve their communication or presentation skills. Here, while the subject of the coaching is common, the benefits are accrued for each person individually.

From an executive coaching standpoint, the broad methodology and the coaching framework would be the same in either case but where they are different is when it comes to designing and delivering the coaching itself. The assessments would be one-on-one and the actions plans would be individual as well.