Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.Oprah Winfrey
The powerful role leadership plays during the pandemic has required leaders to think fast and change their leadership style to suit the challenging times.
Likewise, departmental teams working with their leadership teams has required that everyone is considerate and conscious of the impact the pandemic is having on their teams.
Leaders are trying new things and building momentum is their biggest challenge as the constant stop/start forces change frequently.
In this article we wanted to address what the role of leadership looks like during the COVID-19 crisis. Both from our own perspective, but also from what we are now observing in our clients.
Many of our clients are now asking us ‘how do we make these temporary changes more permanent?’ having seen how impactful it has been. And importantly, how can it be rolled out across large organisations at various leadership levels? Through our research and discussions, we have rolled our learnings up into 3 Key Leadership styles.
Human leadership, Lighthouse leadership and Unleadership.
Let’s start with a quote from Dr Prudence Gourguechon. She is the past president of the 3000+ members of the Psychoanalytic Association in the US. She has served as an advisor to business leaders, marketers, investors, entrepreneurs and political campaigns. Dr Gourguechon is an expert on the psychological aspects of individual and group behaviour. 
In an article for Forbes, Gourguechon wrote “Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings. Also called ’vicarious introspection’, it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes.”
More than ever, we need empathetic leaders and with that, empathetic leadership. Human Leadership.
When we asked our own senior members what leadership must look like in 2020, empathetic leadership revealed these four elements that were vitally important to the team.
Chelsea Bates is our Managing Director in Melbourne. Chelsea says “Good leaders show they are willing to be vulnerable and show their human side. They openly accept they don’t know all the answers and they will make some mistakes as there are so many unknowns.”
Rachna Verma, Senior Consultant in Sydney agrees. “Leadership Teams should be providing honest and open updates on the current situation and how they are feeling.”
At ADAPTOVATE our Leadership Team are sharing their experiences, how they are personally navigating this period and sharing new hobbies and interests.
Show global empathy
“The very nature of the location (working in their loungerooms and family homes) makes leaders seem more approachable and human, and they are being asked to display more global empathy than ever before too”, says Caitilin Studdert, Principal in Sydney.
Because the pandemic is a global crisis, leaders who are running global teams, are needing to be hyper vigilant about the needs of local divisions. Each city (and in some cases pockets within the city) are going through different experiences of the pandemic. Even in ADAPTOVATE’s home country of Australia, our Melbourne team is in full lockdown with curfews while the Sydney team is free to move and meet.
This requires an understanding of the needs of all team locations, and importantly show the global empathy required to be nuanced in approaches and expectations.
During uncertain times, employees usually need to have reassurance. Reassurance comes in many forms, and in many ways, several of this article’s points, come back to the simple need for employees to feel reassured that ‘everything is going to be ok’.
It goes without saying that no-one has a crystal ball on this crisis, so reassurance for employees needs to be in the form of open communication. The employees need to have reassurance the leadership team is doing everything they can too.
Rachna agrees “Leadership Teams should be doing everything in their control to minimise risk. They should have increased the frequency of checking in and updates to the organisation”.
“At ADAPTOVATE, the Leadership Team are providing us with weekly and fortnightly updates. Ad hoc comms are distributed where needed” says Rachna.
Invest in employees mental and physical health and wellbeing
Leadership absolutely must be more focused on maintaining the mental and physical health of employees. Ideas may include encouraging virtual run clubs, yoga sessions, happy hours and other activities to keep distanced teams healthy and engaged.
Importantly employees need to know where to easily find information and support for mental health. This requires open communication and of course confidentiality.
In his article for EY Stephen Koss says “don’t rely on people to self-report. Two-way conversations are essential to building trust. It’s vital to monitor mental wellbeing with structured regular opportunities for employees to ‘check-in’ with managers and colleagues – and encourage peer support.”
Andy Koh from our Singapore office says “With many aspects of work facing situations that are out of our control, leaders find they must help staff maintain emotional balance. Leaders have increasingly created constant feedback loops to provide staff with a way to voice their emotional state of mind over driving productivity performance.”
Brooke Pannell is a Consultant in our US division. Brooke says “In our own leadership I’ve noticed that there’s even more attention to humanity. We’ve had talks about the protests here in the US, mental health check ins related to COVID-19 and leadership has respected our individual decisions regarding our desires to work from home and maintain social distancing.”
*ADAPTOVATE have pulled together some articles that may help you address Mental Health with your teams https://adaptovate.com/covid-19/
Our first leadership style addressed the human side of being a leader. On to the business side of things. The below outlines how good leadership can impact business, sales and profitability during the pandemic.
When you think about the definition of a lighthouse what comes to you? A lighthouse provides a bright light to illuminate the way. A lighthouse provides the confidence that you are on the right course and not about to hit the rocks.
Are you that leader?
When we did our research on what great leadership would look like during the pandemic, we developed the seven characteristics that would sum up lighthouse leadership during the time of the pandemic.
- THE BIG PICTURE – FOCUS ON A FEW KEY PRIORITIES
- VISIBLE & ACCESSIBLE
- BE RESPONSIVE/MAKE FAST DECISIONS
- HAVE REGULAR RE-ALIGNMENT SESSIONS
- DEVELOP NEW FORMS OF INFLUENCE
- SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
Let’s briefly look at each one.
In Agile, we talk a lot about leaders letting go of how to do the work and providing more guidance on what needs to get done. We asked Steve Walton, a Principal in Melbourne, his thoughts based on his experience over COVID-19. Steve says, “Conversations I have had with leaders in energy, banking and resource industries over the last two months have highlighted that leaders are focusing on the big picture, prioritising on a few key things to achieve.”
Leaders are being called upon to be more transparent than ever before and more responsive.
Be visible and accessible
Setting up and using a Mission Control has been one of ADAPTOVATE’S strongest actions. Our own Leadership Team were always visible but with the increased frequency in Mission Control meetings and pipeline updates, their visibility has increased.
It’s never too late to set up a Mission Control. If you haven’t done one yet – now’s the time. We have developed a Mission Control infographic that you can download here.
Rachna says “Leadership Teams should always be accessible and contactable but with COVID-19 that connection should be stronger and closer.”
Having bi-directional communication is essential. (As mentioned above in our Human Leadership pillar, it of course also applies to business and productivity). This technique – established early on with the health industry during COVID-19 – allows leaders to provide information, and department members to ask questions. (If interested, In this journal publication from the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, you can see how it works in more detail. )
Andy says that in some clients he’s observed, “because of transformational changes within the organisation, the working relationship has altered between permanent staff and contractors. There has been greater reliance on contracting third parties to achieve outcomes. With tighter collaboration, feedback flow between all parties is required.”
Be responsive and make fast decisions.
Leaders are having to make faster decisions in greater uncertainty than ever.
People are being forced to be more comfortable without the perfect data or the luxury of time to make a decision.
Paul McNamara – ADAPTOVATE co-founder says, “Done is better than perfect” is bringing the MVP concepts into daily decision making. We are also making more mistakes than we ever had, but on the other side of this, reacting faster to recover from these mistakes.”
Have regular realignment sessions
The leadership teams need to incorporate regular alignment, planning and learning more so than ever before. As things are moving at a rapid pace, the style of leadership, the how and what was agreed on last month or last week may have changed. To ensure that employees feel that leaders are all on the same page – these re-alignment sessions are imperative.
Develop new forms of influence
Leaders cannot take for granted how they influence people but will need to be more deliberate in how they exert influence.
With no offices in many scenarios, leaders are needing to find new ways to communicate when many may have been used to the personal interactions.
Charles Tan is the Managing Director at ADAPTOVATE in Singapore. He says, “Previously leaders could get by largely through physical interactions only and choose not to interact electronically or online. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders have had to learn how to influence and communicate using a variety of electronic and online channels, and to learn that in a hurry.”
Set clear expectations
Over the past 6 months, there has been a significant push to encourage specific leadership behaviours within the client. This was partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated an already declining outlook, and partly driven by planned transformational changes.
Andy says, “Many of them have turned to the Agile ways of working as a channel to enable these behaviours. They need to set clear expectations. Leaders within the organisations have been asked to make more effort to provide clarity on all fronts.
This includes articulating direction and outcomes for both permanent teams and project initiatives. As a result, there was a substantial increase in the number of objective and key result (OKR) sessions. Some of them were conducted prior to project kick-offs and some were conducted to better define functional teams’ mission and scope of work” says Andy.
What is the unleader?
It’s a leader who is skilled at relinquishing control and empowering teams. Changes in leadership style over the past few months have required the unleader to step up to the plate. We’ve narrowed it down to these 3? traits that unleaders have.
- SHOW TRUST
- EMPOWER TEAMS
- REFRAMING WHAT “MISTAKES” MEAN
Trust and Empowerment
Chelsea has seen the change in the past few months. She‘s observed in clients that the ones that are succeeding are the “leaders who have trusted and empowered their teams and have seen their ability to deliver continue despite remote working.”
She continues, “Leaders who set the teams clear objectives and measures of success and empower the team to deliver are seeing delivery continue at the same pace before the pandemic.”
Steve agrees, “Allowing workers to organise themselves to get things done” he believes has delivered greater efficiency and productivity.’ He says, “Move from allowing people to get work done, to empower people to make decisions.”
Reframe what mistakes mean
While this is a strong Agile principle, it’s being adopted beyond Agile ways of working as a basic tenant of strong leadership during the pandemic.
Paul says, “The perceived ‘personal’ risk of making a mistake is being seen less as career ending, we are reframing our definition of what a mistake really is, adopting a more test and learn approach over it needs to be right first time.”
It’s not about having just one of the leadership styles. You need to confidently ensure you address all three in some form. That is, you must be empathetic. You must show the way. You must empower.
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ADAPTOVATE would like to thank the co-authors of this article:
Chelsea Bates, Managing Director, Melbourne.
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Benny Ko, Consultant, Melbourne.
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Andy Koh, Senior Consultant, Singapore.
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Paul McNamara, Co-founder, ADAPTOVATE.
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Brooke Pannell, Consultant, US
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Caitilin Studdert, Principal, Sydney
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Charles Tan, Managing Director, Singapore
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Rachna Verma, Senior Consultant, Sydney
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Steve Walton, Principal, Melbourne.
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