We are all well aware of the vital role effective leaders have to play in driving success for organisations and businesses. Although individuals will have different styles and ways of working, a good leader will always be invaluable in formulating the strategic direction of the business as well as communicating with and motivating employees.
Over the last few months the coronavirus crisis has completely reshaped the way we work. It has also fundamentally called into question what it means to be a leader and the personal qualities required to excel in the role. It has raised other important questions too, questions that are coming more sharply into focus as the world prepares to return, slowly, to some kind of normality.
Many are now wondering if we can ever go back to working the way we did, and whether we even want to. According to business research we undertook before the crisis hit, managing a more flexible, remote, digitally enabled workforce topped the list of business priorities over the next five years among enterprises in the UK. For many businesses this priority has suddenly had to be addressed in months rather than years.
Some of us are also wondering if the role of the leader may be changed forever and, if so, what this means for businesses. As we look towards the future, what are the things we have learned from the crisis that will redefine how we lead?
One of the primary roles of a leader is to plan for the future. This is absolutely essential to ensure the long term health and success of a business and to make sure everyone working within it shares a sense of direction and purpose. But how do we plan when the future looks uncertain? Is it even possible to take a long term view when the world is changing at an unprecedented rate? Well, yes and no. For business leaders, some of the most challenging decisions we have to make are about our priorities. Deciding exactly where an organisation will focus its efforts and attention when there is a great deal to consider is always going to be a challenge but when, as it seems to have done now, the world has shifted underneath our feet so drastically, our list of critical priorities becomes very short. It is about doing a few things extremely well rather than trying to cover everything.
The clearer we can be on what the most important focus areas are, the better we can communicate this to our teams to empower them to make good decisions. Crucially, knowing what is most important helps us to be both firm and flexible at the same time. So, one of the big lessons of the crisis is to learn how to manage uncertainty by homing in on what really matters and being adaptable and responsive about everything else.
The crisis has and continues to impact us all in different ways. It has acted as a good reminder that everyone we work with, whether they are our managers, employees, partners, suppliers or customers, is a human being. The reality of home life is now an integral part of our work life. Video calling has invited us into our colleagues’ homes and the boundaries of the working day have shifted as we juggle multiple professional and personal needs. This also means that leaders are no longer remote, unrelatable figures. The dynamic between colleagues is changing and we should try to hold on to the best of that when we return to the workplace.
Unprecedented circumstances test leadership qualities and often bring out the best in people. I’m sure many of us read about Sharon White, the Chair of John Lewis stacking shelves in Waitrose as the impact of coronavirus began to hit the U.K. and were struck by what a powerful demonstration of leadership she was giving us. During a crisis we all roll up our sleeves and strive together, irrespective of our job title, our KPIs, our targets or our level of seniority. Yes, ultimately, we still want and need to be productive, to meet objectives and to sell stuff, but for the last few months that has been tempered with growing collaboration and cooperation. Kindness matters, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because supporting our employees and each other today will pay dividends when we all need – and want – to hit the ground running when we return.
What will the future bring?
If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything it is that we should take nothing for granted and that it is impossible to know what the future holds. That does not mean, of course that we should stop looking forwards. So many things will have changed as a result of this experience, including what it means to be an effective leader. Attributes such as humility, empathy, authenticity and flexibility may now be more prized than any others. I, for one, am hugely excited to see the positive ways this will affect the ways businesses operate and how we all work.