How the pandemic has transformed our idea of leadership

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In a time of heightened fear and uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, good leadership has never been more critical. However, as a collective community, our idea of what makes a good leader has undoubtedly changed. 

Traditional ideals of leadership, like the ability to act quickly and swiftly while making tough decisions, continue to be valued. But as we face a tremendous amount of uncertainty and fear, empathy, compassion, honesty and authenticity have never been more important. 

If we look at the politicians and health experts who have guided the world through the pandemic, female leaders, in particular, stand out as being successful. This success has been attributed to what is typically thought of as “feminine” leadership traits. That is, skills like communication, collaboration and empathy. As an example, B.C.’s own Bonnie Henry has been preparing for a crisis of this kind through a 30 year career as a female fleet medical officer, an epidemiologist in Uganda and the operational leader in response to Toronto’s SARS outbreak. But it’s her compassion, calmness, intelligence and strength that has inspired the actions of others. 

Most importantly, as things change rapidly day by day, a good leader will listen, learn and reinvent themselves to adapt to the needs of their business and team. As a leader, you never finish growing. With that in mind, I’ve highlighted a few leadership practices that were particularly effective through the pandemic and which I plan to continue to emphasize into a post-pandemic workplace. 

Be values-driven

Core values are the foundation that helps an organization weather any storm. At Galvanize, every decision we’ve made in the last four months, big or small, has been measured against our core values of authenticity (being ourselves; communicating from the heart; ensuring everyone is heard), embracing ambiguity (making promises we don’t know how to keep and then doing everything we can to live up to our word) and customer intensity (obsessing about our customers’ success and delivering on every commitment). These core values act as our lighthouse, and guide every decision we make, ensuring that they are in-line with who we are as a company. 

Make it personal

One of the new routines that I adapted when COVID-19 hit was sending out daily Slack posts and emails to the entire company. These emails contained plans for the company, so that our entire staff felt in the loop with every decision that was being made. They also contained personal thoughts, feelings, hopes and observations. As many of us continue to work remotely, honest and authentic communication is so important to ensure everyone feels informed with where the organization is heading and connected personally. As things have begun to calm, I’ve shifted these communications to weekly and I plan to continue with regular, informal company-wide updates post-pandemic. 

Focus on what you can control

For most of us, the pandemic has uprooted every sense of normalcy. Projects have come to a halt, budgets have been cut and plans have been postponed. Throughout all of this, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. What’s helped us as a business has been focusing on the things we can control. Setting clear goals specific to the pandemic and communicating regularly against them gives people a sense of confidence and even relief. As an example, within days of the WHO declaring this a pandmeic, we redeployed 10% of our workforce toward the development of a COVID-19 toolkit and then set the goal of 20% customer adoption by fiscal year end. We established dashboards that allowed us to see how our customers were engaging with us through COVID and then shifted our employee’s activities to map to those. We also established financial commitments that saw us retain profits but without COVID related layoffs. Finally, we let employees know how they could help by taking their vacation and forfeiting their bonus. Not easy decisions, but it gave everyone a clear idea of how they could contribute within the company.

Navigating through a crisis is an enormous test of leadership. A successful leader needs to be able to address the concerns of their team from a place of empathy and compassion, while inspiring confidence in external stakeholders and making hard decisions to ensure the health of the business. However, it’s also an enormous growing opportunity, and a chance to come out the other side well-prepared to lead your company though any new challenges that might come your way. 

Laurie Schultz is CEO of Vancouver-headquartered Galvanize.