The COVID-19 pandemic has been among the greatest global challenges any of us have faced.

In the short-term, operating models have had to change rapidly, but there are some important longer-term lessons for leaders, in terms of how they treat themselves, how they lead others, how they manage an organisation and how they support system-level change.

Strategic leadership is needed more than ever to deal with the complexity and uncertainty organisations face in the wake of the COVID disruption, which is a near perfect example of a VUCA event: a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous crisis.

While we can never fully control our environment, it has highlighted that we must be prepared to evolve and change. In the early days of the pandemic, organisations did just that, performing an amazing pivot to new ways of working. But how can leaders and organisations maintain that level of agility in normal times?

If a leader sees a straightforward problem, a solution can usually be found from what they have done in the past. If they know a process is broken or a system needs changing, they know how to fix it. But COVID-19 was something new.

Preparing a business for a volatile and complex future is not something that can be solved by putting in the right process or updating technology. Leaders need their organisations to be able to respond quickly and fluently. They need to embrace adaptive leadership, but they also need to be aware of their own needs.

During a critical event like a pandemic, people often start to wonder what their purpose is; why they're doing what they're doing and what they think of themselves and their job. One of the positive unintended consequences of COVID is it created a space for leaders to stop and think critically about themselves; what is it that they assume about the future? That they might be able to check out and be able to pursue - what is it they believe? That reflection creates space for development and growth.

COVID-19 reminded us that leaders need to take care of themselves before trying to take care of others, mentally and physically – just like during a safety announcement on a plane when passengers are told to put on their own mask before trying to help anybody else. We can't ignore how difficult COVID-19 has been for people’s mental health, and that applies to leaders as much as anybody.

That dovetails with another trend we saw in the crisis, with businesses becoming more compassionate. People and organisations that were better connected in their ecosystems were able to respond and recover more quickly.

This points to the concept of relational resilience. In a crisis, leaders need to think about how well they are connected and how to develop strong relations to enable themselves and others to come out of the crisis in the best possible shape.

With the darkest days of the pandemic hopefully behind us, the hybrid working environment is here to stay. This has a lot of implications for leading others. Having staff working from home puts more emphasis on the human aspect of leadership and on skills like compassion and empathy.

In western societies, leadership has often been bound up with ‘hard’ characteristics around competition and strength. But the crisis has created a greater need for softer traits like empathy, adaptability and active listening. We knew this was important before COVID-19, but it became more evident during the pandemic and leaders need to embrace it. Humanity is more important for leaders than any technical knowledge today as people must deal with stressful situations, such as working from home and dealing with the pandemic.

The hybrid working environment is also inextricably linked to the theme of digitisation. This too was an important trend before COVID, but the pandemic pushed it to the fore, creating enormous ramifications for jobs and business models around how knowledge is shared, how communication happens and how leaders use technology to remain visible and influential.

In the future, it will force leaders to think more about the ethics of some technologies. To take one example, companies can spend a lot of time and effort supporting the technical teams that create algorithms which underpin AI functions used in areas such as recruitment.

But businesses are often not very good at identifying the cognitive biases of the people that create those algorithms. Leaders will need to do more to ensure that these algorithms are developed free from these cognitive biases by nurturing awareness of these issues throughout their whole organisation.

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There are also lessons leaders can learn from the wider world. Systems level leadership is needed to combine the expertise, influence, and actions of different individuals to adapt and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Some governments were very good at dealing with COVID, others were not. It showed leaders need to be able to distribute leadership across different levels of the system and different expert domains to create shared value and inclusive societies.

This requires leaders to embrace a paradox mindset, because during a crisis people tend to look to their leaders for action and inspiration, making leaders feel like heroes. Leaders, especially during the early stages of the crisis, need to be visible.

But as a crisis develops, and to move away from response to recovery, they need to distribute leadership more widely. That often hasn’t been possible with populist political leaders, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson or, when he was in office, US President Donald Trump.

Populists can create environments that make it hard for collective leadership to happen, because populism is often overly focused on strong authoritative leadership, the presentation of simple solutions, coupled with hubris and arrogance.

The same applies to the business world. During the early stages of a crisis, there is a need for individuals to give a sense of direction, but then that person needs to orchestrate a concerted effort across the organisation for it to recover.

Leaders by default are excellent problem-solvers, that's why they're leaders. Now they need to adapt. The hybrid environment is here to stay, and it would be a mistake to think things will go back to the old ways.

Organisations need to evolve and adapt to this new environment and the role of leadership is of paramount importance. People have changed, their priorities have changed, the world has changed and so has technology. Thus, leaders need to change as well if they want to stay relevant.

Further reading:

Denis, J., Cote, N., Fleury, C., Currie, G. and Spyridonidis, D. (2021) "Global health and innovation : a panoramic view on health human resources in the COVID-19 pandemic context", International Journal of Health Planning and Management.

Croft, C., McGivern, G., Currie, G., Lockett, A. and Spyridonidis, D. (2021) "Unified divergence and the development of collective leadership", Journal of Management Studies.

Currie, G., Busari, J., Gulati, K., Sohal, A. and Spyridonidis, D. (2021) "Distributing systems level leadership to address the COVID-19 pandemic", BMJ Leader.

Dimitrios Spyridonidis is Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation. He teaches on The Warwick Executive Diploma in Strategic Leadership.

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