Leadership in the Age of Covid

Back in the halcyon days of 2015, well before any of us, except for Bill Gates, would have believed that a global pandemic was just beyond the horizon, McKinsey & Company published an article titled Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters. The authors were trying to answer the contested question of what leadership behaviors should organizations encourage?

Fast forward to 2020, and the findings are remarkably poignant, given the new normal we are all facing. According to the McKinsey study, four kinds of behavior determined 89% of leadership effectiveness, and the most critical behavior of highly effective leadership was in supporting others. The author’s description of that behavior is that:

Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

The other three behaviors that had the most impact were; operating with a strong results focus, solving problems effectively, and seeking different perspectives. The economic volatility caused by the pandemic, as well as the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has catalyzed the importance of these behaviors.

The emerging challenge for leadership now is how to support others as the pandemic continues with no definitive end in sight. I’ve been scanning articles of thought leaders on this topic and talking with leaders who are participating in developmental coaching with me, to get a sense of what seems to be most effective. Here is what works.

Building Resilience

Adopting the mindset of an optimistic realist is more helpful than sliding into denial about the impact of the crisis or forcing positivity onto adversity and suffering. The optimistic realist mindset seeks to accept what is and remains hopeful that we will get through this together. Economic insecurity, structural racism, and threats to health are very real stressors. Acknowledging our human responses as they are is an important first step.

It is also equally important not to dwell on the negative or worse to slip into unhelpful rumination patterns. Leaders can redirect and reframe their own and their teams thoughts and attention. Try acknowledging emotional responses, give people the space to sit with them and then redirect conversations to focus on the opportunities that are being formed within the turmoil and on the people making a difference.

Practicing gratitude for what we still do have is an essential element in building resilience. Try opening a meeting by going around the virtual room and inviting everyone to share what they are grateful for today. Similarly, ask the team to consider who they could offer support to this week, a co-worker, customer, or community member.

Searching for meaning in the challenges is also helpful. I ask clients, “Who do you want to be for your team through the pandemic?” and “How do you want to be thought of during this time?” These questions elicit insight and steer leaders into supportive actions that serve their teams. Regardless of the crisis and its impact, we can find meaning in our lives and support others to do the same. Try asking your team members similar questions in your 1:1s.

Adapting to the new normal with all of its constraints and stressors is the next step. To be effective, we should draw upon our strengths and act upon our values to steer us through. Here I might ask, “What strengths have you relied on previously to get through tough times?” or “What values might you draw upon to guide your actions?”. Here we are focusing on our purpose. Our why. Our North Star. Try guiding a conversation on purpose in your next team meeting or in your 1:1s.

Building Connection

As many knowledge workers continue to Work From Home (WFH)  it is crucial for leaders to build a connection with their team members to maximize relationship and belonging, whilst minimizing isolation and lack of organizational commitment. Practice asking open questions and listening to understand how people are coping. Be empathic, and ask what people need from you.

Depending on the situation, you could try variations of, “Sounds like it’s been really challenging with the kids going back to distance learning after the summer break. I really want to support you through this. What do you need from me?” Or, “It seems to me that you haven’t been your normal self lately. How are you coping right now?”

These questions can elicit strong emotional responses. Be prepared. Allow people to express themselves and their emotions. Create a psychologically safe place for people to be vulnerable. Validate their experience and offer support. If people aren’t forthcoming, then share the stressors that are impacting you to build connections. Remember, there is strength in vulnerability. Connect and support one another. We humans are stronger together.


It is crucial to focus our energy on that which is in our control. Introduce conversations about ways to practice self-care. Discuss nutrition, exercise, getting out of the house into nature, engaging in hobbies that bring joy and take us into a flow state, and recharging with restful sleep. These practices strengthen our response to stress. Be vulnerable and share what’s working, or not working, for you right now. Be curious and respectfully draw out your team members on what is effective for them and encourage your team to make plans to take care of themselves and offer support.

Another useful practice is mindfulness meditation. Take a moment just to be and breathe deeply. Let thoughts come and go with no judgment. Be present in the here and now. If you start to engage with your arising thoughts in your mind, then just go back to concentrating on your breath. Share this technique with your team. Try starting a meeting with a one-minute mindfulness meditation. Zoom fatigue is real. Just being is deeply restorative.

Setting Boundaries

Leaders are acutely aware of the struggle to achieve results against the economic recession caused by the pandemic. It becomes all too easy to work constantly from home in an attempt to deliver results. Pay attention to your current bandwidth. Note how many hours you are working a day for a week. Record how many hours you are spending on the self-care activities noted above. How is your work/life balance? Is it integrated in a sustainable manner?

To be productive and an effective creative problem solver, we must take time to decompress. Take a short break, just 15 minutes, and do whatever movement appeals to you most. Get away from the screen and walk around the block. Share how it makes you feel with your team. Ask team members to take short breaks during the day. Support your team to set boundaries and switch off. Even better model the behavior yourself.

Offer Support

The pandemic is truly a “crucible” of leadership, a test that offers opportunities for growth. Leaders will be well served by supporting their team to take the stance of the realistic optimist, to find meaning in the challenges, and to adapt to circumstances as they unfold. It is important to note that mental ill-health is on the rise due to the crisis. Leaders should be prepared to refer team members to the company Employee Assistance Program for counselling support as needed. Talk about anxiety, depression, and burnout and that it’s okay to not be okay at this time.

In the USA alone 179,000 people have died due to the pandemic. 5,800,000 people have or have recovered from Covid-19. Directly or indirectly, we are all impacted to some degree. We are all in this together. Offer support. That’s what the most effective leaders do.

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