The COVID Leadership Change Curve

By Fin Goulding

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After The Lockdown – What Next?

In a series of three articles, Haydn and I explore how the leadership in companies can find new business opportunities during the pandemic crisis to enhance their organisations or indeed help it to survive the coming months.

Now more than ever, it is time for leaders to engage in some rapid reflection on their roles and the need for personal transformation in order to get their companies back to prosperity.

Article 1: The COVID Leadership Change Curve

I have been a senior leader for as long as I can remember (maybe too long) having worked in a wide range of industries and in some powerful C-suite executive leadership teams. 

However, I find myself now wondering whether or not we, as leaders, are being truly candid enough about modern day leadership and the qualities we’ll need to ensure our companies’ future success.

Today’s COVID situation and indeed tomorrow’s post-COVID conditions are going to pose some serious challenges to our leadership abilities. We put this chart together to show the path many of us will take over the coming months.

The basic point is we need to get to a new operating model, in very challenging times. The big question it poses for us is this one, are we managers or are we real leaders? Are we managers who wait for reports showing how tough times are or can we be the leaders that remodel our companies for future success?

It is very difficult to manage a dispersed, remote workforce but I truly believe that it is possible to lead in new ways. So, let’s look at that.

Like many of you, I have attended my fair share of leadership workshops but to my mind, they have all been predominantly theoretical because they do not teach us about what actually happens in leadership teams or what skills that are most important in times of crisis. 

Here’s my list of drag factors as we face, up to enormous, sudden change:

Firstly, the standout emotion for me when observing leadership teams (the ones that manage rather than lead) is that we’re often on guard, cautious, even nervous and second-guessing because our own personal wealth, progress and status are at stake. 

There can be some symbiotic alliances but ultimately the dynamic of the leadership team will gravitate towards scapegoating and finding the weak links that can take the rap for poor performance.  

This creates inward-looking teams who rarely ask big questions of each other or about the future. They ask questions about past business performance. What are our sales numbers? How can we drive them higher? Not, what are the big new opportunities out there or how are we all feeling right now.

A second characteristic is that we are really just managers who wait for reports and stats. We have direct reports whose job is to work hard on those documents about past performance and hand them over to us for sign off. This creates a very transactional mindset. 

A third point I notice is thatleadership culture makes it difficult to be personally authentic, especially if you are an authentically compassionate, connective kind of person. You can be an authentic autocrat of course! But you cannot be authentically compassionate.

A final point. We leaders are natural mimickers of other people’s behaviour. We know from experience that mirroring gets us what we want and if you don’t believe me, talk to your sales team who have learned NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). That means we tend to be overprimed to be part of a consensus and at worst, sycophantic.

COVID changes these dynamics. The new dynamics Haydn and I have been thinking more about lately are:

  • Being Connective
  • Being Persuasive
  • Being Supportive

These attributes will be crucial in a pandemic world. They are the attributes of a relational leadership style. 

Being a connective leader gives the team confidence that the boss is in touch and networking people creatively, but also cares about them, has an eye on morale, and yet is ensuring that the work gets done. That last point is very reassuring.

The new leader also needs to be persuasive…. Well, the old tools of persuasion were often bad for morale anyway. Now we can’t cajole or threaten, we need to persuade people that we have a strong vision for them and that they and the business are safe with us. 

But it depends on them opening up too. A lot of leaders have spent too much time telling team members to “be” collaborative rather than showing the connective, persuasive behaviour that makes collaboration happen. 

Leadership agility is also about being supportive. Yes, this is more of a caring position – and what’s wrong with that! That has always been my position and always will. People right now need your support.

In the past we have been asked to be authentic but because we mimic our peers we have really only been given the chance to be authentically micro-managing, autocratic, or aggressive about the cold hard facts. 

These new characteristics though speak to the point I started off by making. Leadership teams have the knack of not being completely honest about the business or with each other. They have those introspective, distrustful, backward looking habits. That’s not sustainable in the COVID world. 

By working on these new skills leaders can learn to be more open and honest. They can show compassion to each other too.

It is essential now that we are authentic about compassion. The people who work with us are at home, stressed, anxious, fearful for the future. Their families are listening in and observing us too. If we can’t show compassion we will lose their trust and cooperation. We have to be relational and understand the wider picture of their lives.

We also have an opportunity to be less consensual and more challenging so that we’re ready for what’s to come. For the first time, for some of us, we have to ask big questions. How can we create a whole new chunk of business to replace what we are going to lose? We have to be brave.

And to that point, where are you on my COVID Leadership Change curve? Some of you will be near the bottom and I feel for you. I’ve been there in other crises. However, we will talk in the next two articles about what it takes to climb the curve.  

But finally, we have to be busy leaders in a different way. Our team members and direct reports will go crazy if they keep having to create reports to send to us. 

In fact, we can start talking to those people as the decent, worried human beings they are and not just resources. We can get them together, virtually, and take advantage of their collective intelligence to figure out what big opportunities we can chase down, and how to explore them. 

Many of the leadership teams which I’ve been a member of had the first three characteristics; anxious not to be the fall guy, inward-looking and backwards-looking, managing not really leading at all. 

Now we have to be real, relational and we have to be brave. We can and must lead instead of managing.

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