A Lot Has Changed in the World. So Should Leaders
A Lot Has Changed in the World. So Should Leaders

Corporate and HR leaders experimented, adapted, sometimes floundered and occasionally secured crucial wins. They sent workers home, brought them back again and sent them home again. They looked for solutions during late-night meetings and drew courage from their own resilience and that of their employees.

This is what leading a company in 2020 looked like. It was messy and frustrating at times, but also exciting because of the opportunity to learn a lot fast and witness rapid change.

Ahead of the online MERITS Summit and Awards on 15-16 June, MERIT is scrutinising some of the important ways in which the concept of leadership is transforming. None of these shifts stem from new ideas. The trends all existed before Covid-19, it’s just the pandemic highlighted and accelerated them.

Emphasising empathy

This past year has forced leaders to recognise the pressure their workers face and the multitude of tasks they have to juggle, including child care, healthcare and care of the elderly. As many surveys have shown, the pandemic has had a negative impact on employees’ mental health. A McKinsey paper has stressed that in such difficult times leaders need to demonstrate compassionate leadership and to make the safety and health of their employees the first priority.

Numerous studies show that in a business-as-usual environment, compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement from their teams. However, compassion becomes especially critical during a crisis. While a crisis’s early days might seem like the time for leaders to put their heads down and exhibit control, it is just as critical to tune in to personal fears and anxieties so as to be able to turn outward to help employees and colleagues grapple with their own reactions,” according to the paper entitled Cultivating compassionate leadership in a crisis.

Empathy is being amplified during COVID-19,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “A leader who can empathise with employees' personal situations will emerge from this stronger and better than before. And it will become clearer that a one-size-fits-all approach isn't a good leadership strategy.”

Leading by fear is over

Weaponising fear isn’t a good strategy either. It may help drive short-term results, but they are quickly offset by the price companies have to pay for it. The pandemic has hopefully buried the misguided notion that employees driven by fear are more productive and efficient. Reality tells another story: employees who realise that an organisation or a leader prioritises money over their wellbeing typically leave.

In an article for Inc.com, Mark Cibort, President of tech company Reaktor for North America, noted that this past year has solidified the importance of servant leadership. “Most companies have viewed servitude by leaders as wasteful because it doesn't drive up revenue immediately, and to those companies, money comes first. But now there's a new kind of permission, perhaps even a requirement, to above all be a servant leader, to put people first. If leaders lack humbleness and courage in failing to prioritise the needs of their employees, then that means the company's ability to adapt gets stifled too.”

Transform or perish

Even before the pandemic it was evident that the winners of the ‘20s will be those organisations who manage to unleash the full potential of people and technology. The emergence of Covid-19 meant that becoming a “bionic” company must happen much faster. In many places, the transformation timeframe has shrunk from years to mere months. 

According to Boston Consulting, the adoption of this new operating model will require them to lead in new ways. The management consulting firm has identified four imperatives for the leaders of bionic companies:

  • Leaders must rethink the art of the possible

Technology creates new possibilities. With the exponential changes that surround us, it is imperative for a company to embrace these new possibilities.

  • Leaders must move from managing to enabling

With routine tasks increasingly entrusted to technology, people will focus on creativity, cooperation, ethical and business judgment, and an understanding of context.

  • Leaders must harness the full power of technology

They need to be aware of, and use the power of, technology to reshape their leadership models.

  • Leaders must translate purpose into action

As employees grapple with uncertainty and adjust to major change, leaders are called upon to communicate with clarity and instil a sense of purpose.

AI, the cloud and digital are transforming how companies do business. While CEOs don’t need to turn overnight into tech geeks, they need to recognise the opportunities technology brings, and perhaps more importantly, the need to transform in order to survive. “We cannot overemphasise the extraordinary importance of new technology in the new world,” says Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. The banking sector is a perfect example of an industry that needs to transform quickly. Facing extensive competition from Silicon Valley, both in the form of fintechs and Big Tech companies, banks, just like many other industries, more than ever need leaders who can lead this change. 

Taking a stance

In the old days, business leaders used to hold their tongues on social and political matters. In recent years, however, their civic engagement has increased notably. It’s unclear what role Covid-19 plays in this development, if any, but the fact is that today’s firms are much bolder in speaking out on various social issues. As the Economist put it, “gingerly at first, and more conspicuously in the past five years or so, they began weighing in on subjects from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements to religious-freedom laws, gun control, gay rights and transgender-bathroom bills.”

The notion that executives should take a stance is controversial. Critics have attacked and even mocked such social involvement from corporations. On the other hand, proponents like Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor and dean at the Yale School of Management, says that this business awakening shouldn’t be ridiculed but celebrated.

Business leaders tackling social hot topics is not an entirely new tendency. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan all spoke about issues beyond business. Recent surveys have found that CEOs are among the most trusted voices in society. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 92% of employees expect their CEO to speak out on issues of the day.

Book your place

MERIT has never shunned the hottest topics. On the contrary, it has always encouraged HR and L&D directors of companies from different industries to share challenges and explore solutions together. The online MERITS Summit and Awards on 15-16 June will be no different. Now that the world of work is changing at a dizzying pace, it’s more important than ever to come together and try to make sense of it all.

Find out more and register.

Valentin Vassilev