The Post-Covid Reality: From Leader-Driven To People-Powered

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Published on 21st June, 2021
By David Price
Categories: | Opinion |

Illustration: John Biggs

Just over a year ago, I submitted the manuscript of my new book ‘The Power Of Us: How We Connect, Act & Innovate Together’. It represented 3 years of writing and research, visiting inspirational leaders from many countries, leading organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors. Although I was pleased with the book, I expected my editor at Thread Books to suggest many changes. What I didn’t expect was a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

As the enormity of Covid-19 began to dawn, I realised that cosmetic surgery was no longer an option – I would have to re-write the whole book. We’re still not at the point where the pandemic has become endemic, but it’s already clear that leadership will never be the same again. The demands upon leaders have been colossal, with many of the shifts that were already emerging, now pushed into hyper-drive: where we work; how we work; why we work – all thrown into turmoil overnight. If that wasn’t enough, we’ve seen a revolution in civil and gender rights, and CEOs must have a position on both.

When the book came out, the reaction from leaders was largely the same: this is great, I get what needs to change – now how do I do it? Writing a book was never going to be enough so, together with hugely experienced colleagues in HR, L&D, Coaching and Culture Transformation, we formed a boutique agency, The Power Of Us. Although content and consultancy are two of our priorities, we’re also committed to supporting a movement for change in organisational culture: the answer is no longer in the room, but it is in the network. We’re bringing leadership teams together so they can ‘fly loose through turbulence’ together. That phrase was coined by Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, a case study in the book’s vision of what leadership needs to look like going forward. ‘Flying loose’ comes from pilots who learned that tightening up, and over-compensating, during periods of severe turbulence could have catastrophic results – the need was for a lighter touch, staying mindful, but not over-reacting. It’s good advice for CEOs as we prepare for re-entry from Covid.

In order to appreciate the ‘pain points’ they’re currently feeling, we surveyed leaders around the world in organisations large and small. Although the results are still being processed, a number of common leadership challenges are evident:

The Hybrid workplace is a clear – and irreversible – operational challenge. Although opinions differ on the balance between working from home vs office vs anywhere, few of our respondents could envisage everyone in, every day, as a viable way forward.

The need to connect is also a common thread – and an emotional one. A surprising finding has been that lockdown ensured that we all learned more about the lives we lead when we’re not in work. Leaders were literally in employees homes, talking to their kids, admiring their newly-acquired rescue dogs. Feeling closer while being kept apart has been one of the ironies of the pandemic, and respondents spoke of the need to maintain that deeper emotional connection to their people.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has come to the fore, partly through the racial and generational disparity of Covid-experience, and partly through the social movements (particularly #blacklivesmatter and #metoo) that flourished in 2020. Many organisations highlighted the need to reinstall mothers, whose working lives were compromised, due to childcare responsibilities. Equally, young people have been disproportionately sacrificed when difficult hiring/retention decisions had to be faced. 1.8 billion young Europeans are going to be facing a very difficult search for work, post-Covid – what can organisations do to ensure they have hope?

Emotional Wellness featured prominently on the leader’s radars. When we asked for their key learning moments of the past 18 months, the emphasis was upon showing empathy and appreciation for the whole person. Building resilience, showing humility and vulnerability also underline the blurring of previous boundaries between professional and personal lives.

The impact of urgency in innovation has been seen through the incredible response to developing vaccines, breathing machines, PPE, and the rest. So, it’s not surprising that leaders are investigating how developmental timescales can be truncated beyond the pandemic. Will we ever go back, for example, to 10 year drug development programmes, when we can do it in a year?

Finally, we asked leaders to prioritise values that had become essential during Covid. The three that were consistently highlighted were Trust, Equity, and Meaning. There is a clear sense that, beyond the pandemic, workers are looking for meaning in their work. The opportunity to reflect during the pandemic, has led to a re-evaluation of a personal sense of purpose. Life is short and if a third of it is to be spent at work, it clearly needs to offer more than just a paycheck.

What does all this mean for leadership models as we move into the unknown? As we saw through the global leaders responding to the crisis, it seems clear that the organisations that thrive will have humble leadership, a clear commitment to the wellbeing of the people in their charge, and the flexibility needed when workforces are now more diverse and more dispersed than before.

Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, in the aftermath of the Global FInancial Crisis, famously said ‘You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste’ At least that’s the part everyone remembers. But he also said ‘And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.’ Now, as we focus upon the devastating impact of another global crisis, there are many opportunities to do things we thought we could not do before. We could make equity the lived reality of the future workplace. We could recognise that the vaccines that will save us were only developed at unprecedented speed by making IP open source. We could remember that there was a commitment to ‘cosmo-localism’ (the global distribution of ideas, so that face shields, PPE, breathing machines, could be manufactured locally, and at record speed) We could make the kind of transnational, cross-disciplinary collaboration we saw in the race to save lives, a daily experience.

CEOs could apply any of these ‘lockdown lessons’ to their own enterprises and redefine organisational agility and creativity in the throes of the recovery already underway. More than that, however, is the need to recognise that the trauma experienced by employees as a result of the pandemic will still be felt, long after the economy has recovered. A sense of community really matters, so post-Covid leaders will put their people’s mental wellness ahead of shareholder value. They will listen more and proclaim less often. They will accept that there’s no moral ‘neutrality’ anymore – consumers will only support the organisations who don’t just say the right thing, but rather do what needs to be done to make the world a better place. They will have to take a stand on the big social and political issues of the day, and stick by their values.

Post-Covid leaders will be comfortable with the trust they’ll need to demonstrate when they can’t see all their employees, all of the time (so there’s no need for the surveillance software). They will allow their empathy to eat their ego, and they will create a positive healthy culture by letting go of the reins of control. They will ‘fly loose’ through the next bout of turbulence by investing in strengths-based, self-managed teams, who can chart their own course through the storm.

And they won’t have to work quite so hard, because they will have created the necessary culture, and the psychological safety, that allows their people – and their business – to thrive.

David Price is the author of The Power Of Us: How We Connect, Act, And Innovate Together, available through Thread books. He is the founder of the Power Of Us Agency, and can be found at:

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