HomeLeadershipMoving beyond COVID-19 through social leadership

Moving beyond COVID-19 through social leadership

  • 8 Min Read

As the working world changes, so too does the nature of working itself. HRD Thought Leader Jon Ingham explores this further, supposing that organisations now have an opportunity to shift their approach to leadership and explore more project-based, distributed methods of working.

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In my last HRD Connect article I suggested that organisations need to optimise the opportunities provided by the dramatic increase in working from home due to COVID-19, not merely mitigate the downsides of the pandemic. In particular, we need to ensure our use of digital communication technologies helps move organisations to a more distributed way of working and more effective leadership.

For example, we should be looking at organising people and work through distributed networks rather than just centralised functions, decentralised projects or agile teams. However, changing an organisation’s ways of working, and / or its organisation design, will depend heavily on transforming people’s behaviours, and in particular, introducing new leadership approaches.

Most importantly, an increase in leadership needs to be aimed at engaging other individuals through trust-based relationships, rather than relying on hierarchical authority (which is why I am referring to leadership rather than management). This has been important during the pandemic but will be even more critical as we move beyond it. And in fact, many leadership commentators and organisational leadership models have been emphasising trust and empathy for some time.

In particular, Edgar Schein has recently been focusing on humble leadership, stressing the importance of openness and trust in order to create ‘personised’, or professional intimate relationships.

And just before the pandemic broke, MIT released research noting the emergence of a new set of relationship-focused leadership behaviours, including: nurturing passion; demonstrating authenticity and empathy, employing an inclusive approach and showing humility as part of their new leadership playbook.

However, the way that organisations have had to put people first during the pandemic has reinforced the need for a more social approach to leadership too. For example, McKinsey have suggested that awareness, vulnerability, empathy and compassion are the four most critical leadership qualities required both to care for people in crisis and set the stage for business recovery.

I think these are all great suggestions for developing future focused leadership capabilities. But there is another relationship-based requirement that all of these and most other recommendations miss out. As I suggested in my CoLab session at HRD Summit UK back in February, this is to shift the whole focus of leadership from leading individuals to leading groups as collectives. This requirement applies to both informal groups of people working together and formalised groups acting as part of the organisation structure.

Yes, I know some leaders do already focus on groups, but in traditional, functional organisations, leadership of functional groups tends to focus mainly on leading the individuals within a group. For example, we place little focus on planning and reviewing performance of a particular function, or a layer of staff within a function, and much more on individual objectives, appraisal and reward. Group level leadership is largely limited to ensuring people co-ordinate their work with one another and building a basic level of psychological safety across the group.

However, in more decentralised and distributed organisations, focusing on bringing people together into teams, communities and networks, there is a greater need to focus on leading at group level.

Social leadership of teams

Leadership of horizontal teams – i.e cross-functional groups focusing on processes, projects, products or agile methodologies (scrum and kanban) etc – does already tend to focus more on the whole team. Team leaders need to ensure all team members co-operate much more closely with each other around team objectives, and that they also have a deeper sense of psychological alignment around these objectives and each other’s working, than is the case in functional groups.

This is what McKinsey refer to in their recent article on crisis-response teams as a ‘commander’s intent’. Leaders impart this intent by providing a clear goal that allows a team to make decisions within a set of parameters, enabling it to respond to dynamic demands.

The other distinguishing feature of team leadership, in product management and agile teams at least, is that teams are much more likely to be self-leading. Leadership here takes place through a situation or actualisation hierarchy in which leadership moves between team members according to role, insight or experience, and therefore the ability to lead on a particular area of work. This means that in addition to being humble, authentic, empathetic and compassionate, and focused on a social or organisational group, social leadership also needs to be distributed across a group, not just limited to one particular leader. As Schein suggests, “leadership is a group sport, not an individual heroic activity.”

Social leadership in a team also needs to be collective, in that each person needs to contribute towards the overall leadership provided with many varied perspectives, but also some sense of shared direction, supporting the team’s goals.

Social leadership of communities

Social leadership of communities might not be seen as an important need or opportunity as communities still tend not to have a very prominent role in many organisations. However, employers are going to have to make more use of social forms of organisation such as communities, as well as social forms of leadership, if they are going to navigate today’s challenging business environment successfully.

This need to invest in communities is shown particularly strongly through the one million people who have volunteered to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. Companies need to tap into some of this intrinsic motivation to support a compelling purpose within their workforces. Communities provide a natural setting for them to do this.

Crucially, nobody can tell a community what to do and social leaders of these groups need to be particularly sensitive to working with and through people, leading from the middle rather than the front.

Writing about the need to involve rather than instruct local communities in responding to the pandemic, three health professionals writing in The Lancet suggest that governments need to work with existing communities, responding to their diversity in order to co-produce solutions. This advice works well for the way social leaders need to nurture and facilitate organisational communities too.

I would also suggest that social leaders of communities need to focus on cultivating psychological intimacy between community members. This is about developing a deep sense of interest and connection between members, that ensures they will want to work together and also that they will be able to recognise opportunities for doing so.

Social leadership of networks 

Distributed networks are nominal groups of people focused around particular issues that they are interested in and want to do something about. They are nominal groups because network participants will not know most of the other people in the network. However, networks help people share knowledge very effectively and can help people within the network connect together and decide to collaborate separately.

Networks are essential to innovation and managing change. Many organisations therefore use networks alongside communities, teams and functions as another approach to organising people and work.

My best example of network development during the pandemic has been the UK’s Ventilator Challenge. You may remember that early on in the pandemic it looked as if the NHS was going to run short of ventilators. A number of firms stepped in to try to quickly design and manufacture this equipment. The Ventilator Challenge took a different approach, setting out to find and connect the ‘best and brightest engineering and manufacturing brains’ and rally their resources to meet the urgent need for ventilators. Of course, in the end, the NHS did not run out, but the challenge network showed it could act faster than many stand-alone organisations and could have made a vital difference to the UK if circumstances had been slightly different.

Social leadership in networks is about brokering connections between people who do not know each other, and creating a sense of psychological curiosity in what other network participants are doing, that may then lead to the basis for co-operation.

I also like the suggestions from digital workplace commentator, Dion Hinchcliffe, that network leadership also needs to focus on communicating transparently, by sharing openly or ‘working out loud’; engaging regularly and using the network to learn in order to improve together with other network participants.


Whilst social leadership of these different groups has many similarities, there are many important differences too. Therefore, a final requirement for social leadership is that it be ‘tailorable’, responding to the nature of the group or network that someone is trying to lead.

Leaders who want to lead across these different groups in a social way will therefore need to be extremely flexible in their behaviours if they are going to be able to optimise this tailoring process. And given the distributed nature of social leadership, this basically means that everyone will be able to act in this flexible way.

Leadership development is therefore going to form a really important part of the way organisations respond to ongoing digital transformation, distributed organisation design, and how organisations progress through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

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