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What the pandemic taught us about leadership

Emily Herrington
May 17, 2021
What the pandemic taught us about leadership

Whether at work, in our community, or politically, our leaders are the ones we look to when we’re facing uncertain circumstances and aren’t sure what to do. But what happens when an unprecedented event like a global pandemic rattles life as we knew it? And the leaders we turn to have to lead through something they’ve never seen or experienced before?

They had to provide answers when there were none and steer their ships through murky waters.

Some failed by refusing to take accountability and passing the buck down the line, leaving constituencies confused and scared. But others thrived, successfully reducing stress and building trust. 

Here, we’ll delve into the qualities great leaders demonstrated during the pandemic, and how to build up those essential skills. 

How the pandemic redefined leadership

The pandemic showed us how critical it is for leaders to establish trust and help their teams manage stress. It provided the opportunity to redefine leadership, triggering a shift in beliefs in what the most important leadership skills are. 

Research from CEMS highlighted some key differences in how leadership qualities are valued pre- and post-Covid. Pre-pandemic, 74 percent of respondents said strategic vision was a top-three leadership quality. After the pandemic, it dropped to 68 percent. Resilience shot up from 13 percent to 34 percent after the pandemic. Result-focus dropped in importance by 9 percent after the pandemic, and empathy/emotional intelligence increased by 5 percent in the post-pandemic survey. 

Overall, the pandemic showed us that leaders need to demonstrate empathy, emotional intelligence, strong communication, and resilience. 

Lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic
6 things we learned from a tough year
Learn More >

Crisis leadership in action

Let’s take a look at a poster child for successful leadership during the pandemic. The U.S.’s top immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci became a voice Americans could depend on to inform them on what was happening and what needed to be done during the pandemic. A daily fixture in the public spotlight, Fauci was able to establish trust and demonstrate strong leadership by: 

  • Addressing the public regularly, with direct and no-fluff communication
  • Being transparent about when things changed or new research or guidances
  • Backing up his statements with data and facts
  • Empathizing with the public’s fears and concerns
  • Speaking in a simple, easy-to-understand way
  • Maintaining a consistent message and not changing the script
  • Being present and connected regularly 
  • Acting decisively and with authority

Take note of how Fauci led during the pandemic and consider how you can apply those techniques within your own organization. 

How to build key post-pandemic leadership skills

Create an open environment. 

Build an environment in which your team can be open and authentic. Maybe it’s because we couldn’t mute the dogs barking in the background of our Zoom meetings, but the pandemic showed us that realness and relatability is what we needed most in these times— not perfection. This was a time to recognize that we are all people first, and our humanity and health needs to be prioritized. 

Improve emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and perceive the emotions of others around you, while also managing your own and how they affect those around you. To improve your emotional intelligence, pay attention to how you react to stressful situations, practice active listening instead of just waiting to speak, and work on increasing your level of self-awareness. We’re only scratching the surface here, but as a leader, it’s mission-critical to be aware of how you affect the people around you. 

Communicate clearly and transparently. 

The pandemic created the need for many uncomfortable conversations. When times are tough, address it. Hiding information or avoiding talking about it leads to distrust, even if your intentions are good. During a time of uncertainty, it was important for leaders to inform their teams of their positioning, strategies, security, and plans. It’s important to stick to a regular communications routine, letting your team know what’s going on and how it affects their day-to-day. This helps decrease their stress levels while providing a predictable routine during unpredictable times. 

Be flexible. 

Have a plan, but be prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice. The winners of the pandemic were those who were able to quickly adopt a new model and run with it. Don’t get overly attached to the previously imagined future — focus on the present and how you will thrive in a new normal.

Hear from the experts

Learn more about what leaders will take away from the pandemic year at SURGE Forward, our three-day virtual conference happening June 8-10. Join us for conversations about what leaders learned through resilience in 2020. SURGE Forward registration is free, and you won’t want to miss it! Click here to register. 

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Emily Herrington

Emily Herrington is a New Orleans-based digital marketer specializing in SEO, content, and pay-per-click advertising. She can usually be found at her desk obsessing over data and rankings, or in the kitchen covered in flour.

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