Strategy & LeadershipCOVID-19: 3 keys to leadership in lockdown

COVID-19: 3 keys to leadership in lockdown

In a crisis, employees turn to their leaders for the support they need. Here are three essential attributes that leaders must develop to support their workforces in a time of unprecedented disruption.

Four weeks ago, none of us would have predicted that we would now be locked down in our homes with both our working and social lives restricted to virtual communication channels. We would never have expected that our meetings, our conferences our entertainment and our education would all need to take place from our home offices or our kitchen tables.

The Coronavirus pandemic has demanded a new way of existing that we must all adjust and adapt to. Most of us will do this gradually, but today’s leaders do not have the luxury of time to make these necessary changes slowly. They have an immediate responsibility for keeping their teams as engaged and as productive as possible, to try to offer some protection from a critically uncertain future.

We have already lived through a significant change in the way we communicate and relate to each other. The exponential growth of our adoption of social media tools such as FaceTime, LinkedIn and Twitter has changed how we make ‘friends’, shop, get information and share our lives with others. Now, to help us through the coronavirus crisis we can catch the wind of this digital progress to provide leadership through these unchartered waters.

3 keys to leadership in lockdown:

1. Do not be afraid to project ‘thought’ leadership

In these uncertain times, it is important that people can turn to leaders for some certainty, a view, or a sense of direction. To be seen as effective, leaders need to be seen as thought leaders who can build momentum and publicly call others to action. Leaders who are seen to ‘own’ a narrative and have the courage to share their opinions widely are seen to be influential, can provide reassurance and direction for those struggling with unfamiliar skills and anxiety over their future.

But to have an influential opinion is not the same as being opinionated. To be influential, leaders needed to be able to command and hold credibility. Leaders can do this by having the courage to be vulnerable and being prepared to be personally open and transparent. This requires honesty, and a sharing of emotions which has not been seen as a traditional leadership requirement. It is tempting for leaders to feel they need to demonstrate strength at times like this, but now, when we are all at some degree of risk, effective leadership needs a balance of visible credibility and humility.

2. Develop digital and interpersonal communication skills side by side

Leaders who demonstrate thought leadership effectively have excellent communication and ‘message management’ skills. As well as effectively and authentically publicising personal strengths and profiles, leaders must, at the same time, manage, use, and filter enormous amounts of incoming information. The multiple message platforms available may lead to information overload. Effective leaders are able to filter the ‘noise’ and respond appropriately within moments, on different platforms and using different modes of communication. This is not something that comes naturally to most of us but the complexity, sophistication, and speed of communications in the digital environment suggest that it is an increasingly important aspect of leadership.

There are two levels of technical skills involved here, the interpretation of the incoming information data, and the competence to use digital tools. Leaders must master both for enhanced decision making and agility and must at the same time have the traditional interpersonal communication skills of listening, influence, and empathy in order to maximise their leadership potential.

3. Have a real understanding of your organisation’s strategy.

The need to respond to rapid change and challenges in a VUCA world whilst proactively grasping whatever emerging opportunities are around needs leaders to have a really clear understanding of the purpose and mission of their organisation. Without this, focus can be lost, and decisions become seemingly haphazard. At the same time, decision making is being driven further down into organisations, so leaders must be able to communicate organisational strategy to every level in order for cohesive and coherent messages to be understood, even if this may seem almost impossible, when the external environment is as turbulent as it is at the moment.

These three key developments reveal a number of tensions and paradoxes associated with effective leadership in the digital age:

  • Leaders must demonstrate opinionated thought leadership, must be high profile and visible and at the same time be able to construct and deliver intimate, tailored communications and must be inclusive and accept a redistribution of power
  • Leaders have to make decisions more rapidly than ever before, which creates a tension when set against the importance of providing a lucid, appropriate, and considered response. The pressure for speed and immediacy can lead to simplified, ‘sound bite leadership’ making strategy the casualty of short-term thinking.

Leadership is never easy, and in the coming months it is likely to be more difficult than ever. Social media can help leaders with communication and engagement, and it is difficult to see when there might be a better time to really take advantages of the opportunities it offers.

By Patricia Hinds, Hult Ashridge Executive Education.

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