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Leadership in Times of COVID-19 – It’s Both an Art and a Science

Sarika Naik

This article was originally published in and has been reproduced here with permission.

Good leaders identify people’s competencies and articulate their strengths, but the best ones are always rediscovering and moving up the learning curve themselves especially in tough times.

Leadership is one of the most defining elements in any organisation. In times of adversity, there is tremendous focus on how leaders communicate with their people, how that message is received, and the impact of that message.

In unprecedented times like the COVID-19 pandemic, a real leader’s best attributes are borne out by their engagement across three areas – empathy, diversity and inclusion, and philanthropy. How you connect and lead is what shapes the culture of your people, and of your company.

Empathy is the true work ethic

The new normal induced by COVID-19 has resulted in high levels of stress and anxiety among employees. Empathy breeds a culture where leaders fully identify with these situations. It’s about knowing the ‘Pulse’ of the people and promoting a culture of listening and employee connect.

It’s up to leaders to know how their employees are faring – whether the ‘COVID experience’ has instilled ‘fear’ or been a ‘learning’ for them, says Chuck Gillespie, CEO of National Wellness Institute in the US. By leading them from the zone of fear (helpless and pessimistic) to the zone of learning (self-control and confident), it will pave the way for the third – the zone of ‘growth.’ This is the zone where people learn how to apply empathy to help others.

It’s about impressing upon your people, especially remote workers, that they need not have any fear of lost productivity or lack of contribution. An industry study says 92% of employees stay with a company if it empathized with them, but 50% feel their organizations don’t do so. When leaders trust and show appreciation to employee needs, you’ve provided an emotional anchor that binds them to you forever.

Diversity and inclusion go together

COVID-19 has hastened the movement towards a gig economy, and the barriers of geography, community, and creed will be eroded further. Today, corporations face pressure from employees, clients, and the local community to ‘go right and be right’ – by being diverse.

As we get influenced by the Black Lives Matter protests and Pride celebrations against a global pandemic – which has disproportionately impacted the marginalised – diversity has again taken centerstage. But, is it enough to have diversity at the workplace? Since no two human beings are identical or equal even if coming from a common heritage or background, can diversity make an impact without inclusion? Diversity is what you have, inclusion is what you do.

Inclusion helps us to foresee change, transform our organisations, and progress. That culture is reinforced through LGBTQ-focused benefits at one level plus affirmative action on the other: for example, domestic-partner coverage, gender-inclusive medical protection, outreach to underprivileged communities through digital inclusion programs, etc. As COVID-19 reshapes our businesses, it’s time for leaders to reinforce inclusiveness and embrace differences more widely.

Philanthropy makes business sense

In their 2002 article titled Competitive Advantage of Corporate Philanthropy, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer established a linkage between philanthropy and business, and how it creates value for society as well as improves a company’s competitiveness. COVID-19 has proven this more than anything – that philanthropy and business go together.

COVID-19 has pushed R&D and innovation significantly, with top corporates generously opening their hearts, and wallets, to promote research into pandemics. We’re seeing increased research in biotech and AI, and partnerships between health experts and industry. This is when and where you leverage your core competence to become architects of positive futures. For a socially conscious company, it’s an opportunity to give back to society.

Community work is very sentimental for companies – like donating ICU beds for stretched government institutions during COVID-19 or supplying medical supplies and safety equipment to frontline workers. In fact, volunteer programs are a powerful form of employee engagement. Selfless leaders encourage this because they know nothing helps employees more than helping others.

The essence of leadership

As the saying goes, “We cannot lead anyone farther than we have been ourselves.” Good leaders identify people’s competencies and articulate their strengths, but the best ones are always rediscovering and moving up the learning curve themselves especially in tough times.

My belief is that while leading your organisations through difficulties, too much change can knock people out of their equilibrium. One has to start with what they have and what works well – then build on it and create solutions that produce incremental innovations to generate major changes over time.

COVID-19 has handed that opportunity to show real leadership.