The COVID era calls for a brand of leadership we have seen before

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Jun 02 2020 by Christos Tsolkas Print This Article

What kind of leader do you need to be in a crisis? This is not a theoretical question today, of course, and yet it is one that leaders should consider deeply even as they grapple with the crisis at hand. Everyone can agree that leadership is “important” in any crisis. But just as there are different kinds of crises, so there are different kinds of leadership. What approach to leadership is called for now with COVID-19?

Is this a war where quick decisions necessitate strong authority? Is it a period of dramatic economic disruption that lends itself to creative thinking and bold risk-taking? Is it a time when the ability to implement new processes, efficient operations and logistics has become critical? Does the COVID era require the kind of resiliency, determination, and adaptability that only an inspirational leader can spark? Is a sense of purpose and shared meaning more important than ever? Is this an opportunity to make big strategic moves in evolving markets?

The answer is Yes.

In my study of leadership over the past century, different eras are marked by quite different brands of leadership. Leadership in the industrial era was different from leadership during the golden age of advertising or the dot-com boom.

COVID-19 is unlike any crisis we have seen before because it demands attention and reinvention on almost every front. Most leaders today are thinking tactically – how do I get through the next few weeks or quarter? A sounder approach asks: What kind of leader do I need to be today or when I turn my attention to a specific problem?

I had a light-bulb moment talking to friends in leadership around the globe about how they are adapting to the crisis. My friend Laura is an interesting example. A brilliant marketer and entrepreneur, she launched a famous beauty product line in the 90s, built two factories, set up a robust R&D function and expanded globally. Each phase of her leadership journey required different hats, skills and approaches. Few leaders can manage that kind of transition over time.

Today, Laura is wearing every hat in her leadership wardrobe at once. She is:

  • Focused on morale and communication with her work-from-home workforce.
  • Optimizing costs across the P&L spectrum to help her company survive.
  • Handling legal risks stemming from non-executed agreements.
  • Rolling out a huge digital transformation to bring her products direct-to-consumer through mobile.
  • Considering a recent M&A deal proposal.
  • Mapping emerging customer trends to prepare for a post-quarantine market.
  • Preparing a brand re-launch.
  • Making a hundred or so major decisions about new directions every day.

Talking to Laura made me see the demands of leadership in a new way. Consider the evolution of leadership captured in this chart:

There is a tendency to view that evolution as developmental. In other words, we leave one set of attributes or needs behind as we develop a new set that is more imperative. COVID-19 has made our leadership needs more comprehensive and practical than ever. Think about the phases of the crisis so far, and the type of leadership we have needed to employ at each point:

The Crisis Starts.

When COVID first began to disrupt normal business and societal operations, leaders needed to invent new processes and standards for hygiene and safety while reinventing the workplace. That called for the kind of radical step-by-step invention of processes last seen in the industrial era.

The Confusion Deepens

During war, authority becomes central and command-and-control types are prized. As COVID intensified and leaders got inundated by big choices, tough, clear-sighted decision-making came to the fore. It was not a time to debate but to take charge.

The Survival Game

As the reality of ongoing financial losses set in, companies needed to sustain themselves by optimizing costs, maximizing cash reserves, and preparing to run very differently for a long time. This is reminiscent of the workforce reductions and hierarchy flattening in the 80s. Alternatively, some companies experienced surging demand but still needed to figure out how to do more with less.

Let’s Get Real

During truly bleak times (think Churchill in the Blitz), people desperately need inspiration even as they hate BS. Today’s best leaders acknowledge fear and uncertainty while encouraging optimism by being transparent, vulnerable, highly communicative, and data driven.

Connection is King

The Madmen era arose because companies discovered that emotional connections to customers (and employees) was the basis of product appeal. Today, many organizations are leaning hard on their brands to speak to customers in a deeper way with more intimacy. They can do this realistically because their products are essential or support the idea that life can go on.

The New Innovation Opportunities

In the 90s, CEOs became innovators-in-chief. Yesterday’s disruption is child’s play. Every business today is moving as fast as possible and pivoting whenever necessary. Whole industries are transforming overnight. It’s time to ask what’s next, and to figure out how to seize those opportunities.

It’s Always Been about Purpose

In the last decade, purpose and social impact have emerged as driving forces for innovation and market leadership. New era leaders recognize that what really moves people and customers is a sense of greater meaning and contribution. To that end, they connect business models and products to global problems and try to “change the world” for the better.

When has that emphasis been more needed than now? Today, everything feels purposeful – even simple acts like working, enjoying a favorite product, or making a phone call. The best leaders make the case for their organizations “raison d’etre” with authenticity, knowing that “life” as we once knew it may be forever changed even as well all hope for a better world.

How many companies will survive the next 6 to 12 months? There will surely be more destruction than “creation” to come. Yet, we are already seeing new ways that industries and companies are adapting. Think of how schools and healthcare have turned to virtual platforms, or the way that retail has pivoted to online orders and curbside pickup.

Just as a lack of leadership has never been more damaging, so the exercise of leadership has never been more necessary. A leader today must have a rare collection of attributes that range from deep technical savvy to the ability to connect to others across distance to an almost spiritual sense of purpose and meaning.

Unlike my friend Laura, not every leader can be all of those things simultaneously, but some will also help their organizations thrive by assembling the necessary talents in the people they keep close by.

Those that do will turn our crisis into a gift.


About The Author

Christos Tsolkas
Christos Tsolkas

Christos Tsolkas is an Independent business advisor, entrepreneur and author of the new book, The Gift of Crisis: How Leaders Use Purpose to Renew their Lives, Change their Organizations, and Save the World. He has spent more than 25 years in positions of significant responsibility (general management, sales & marketing) with multinationals in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, leading senior teams to achieve high performance and change. His educational background is chemical engineering & business and he is dedicated to continuous learning.