Date posted: 12/08/2020 5 min read

Leadership skills for a post-COVID world

How can leaders dealing with the COVID crisis lay the foundations for success in a post-COVID world?

In Brief

  • The COVID disruption will have a big effect on organisational culture once we return to our usual workplaces.
  • Leaders need to inspire trust, both now and after the COVID crisis, and this comes from a consistency in their actions.
  • Leaders should invest some time in identifying their core values and ethical DNA.

COVID has turned our world upside down. With no certain end in sight, structural, strategic and psychological change is constantly on our minds. And for executives, managers and anyone who leads a team, the complexity of the decision-making being asked of us right now is, dare I say, unprecedented.

At the same time as leading our organisations through the immediate crisis, we need to lay the foundations to ensure success in our post-COVID life (date TBC), make tough business decisions for now and the future, manage complex risk factors we don’t fully understand, and lead our people with compassion and fairness. It’s a tough gig.

We will eventually return to our physically familiar workplaces, but the leadership skills required of us may be quite different to those we relied on previously.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus illustrated this point around 500 BCE by highlighting the impossibility of standing in the same river twice. You might step in at the same point, but the water rushing past will always be different.

Now, more than ever, we live in a state of perpetual flux and our leadership skills need to adapt accordingly.

The benefits of a positive culture

There are many aspects of our work lives that are likely to change after COVID, but I’m choosing to concentrate on ethical leadership and organisational culture.

One of the biggest effects of the COVID disruption will be significant changes in employee expectations – about flexibility and working from home at the very least – that will make both subtle and more obvious changes to the culture of our workplaces.

Culture influences what we do, how we do it and what is considered acceptable behaviour. It lays out a shared framework in which to couch decisions and provides shortcuts to effectively manage the day-to-day operations, creating space to properly engage with more consequential challenges.

Most importantly, a positive and robust work culture is a powerful inoculant against unethical behaviour.

How to lead through any crisis

But you can’t just will a work culture into being, and the post-COVID workplace will present new challenges to leaders as they set out to establish the new work culture norms.

How can those in leadership roles give themselves the best chance of being ethical and effective in establishing the new post-COVID workplace? A few reliable factors will serve you well.

Effective and ethical leaders communicate with clarity, empathy and authenticity. They actively and openly listen to those around them, particularly subject matter experts, rather than selectively listen to what suits their agenda.

They are prepared to admit they might be wrong, and seek counsel to make sure their ideas and decisions stand up to ethical scrutiny.

Leaders need to inspire trust and this comes from a consistency in their actions, not just words. Particularly now, leaders need to acknowledge hardships with emotional courage and be willing to take action in solidarity with those who look to them for guidance.

Effective leaders have a strong ethical framework to guide their decisions and allow themselves to be led by virtues such as courage, kindness, generosity and fairness.

Invest some time in identifying your core values and ethical DNA. Share these openly with your teams and invite conversation about how these influence your decisions.

It is often said that you don’t develop character during a crisis. Rather, a crisis reveals the true character you already have.

“It is often said that you don’t develop character during a crisis. Rather, a crisis reveals the true character you already have.”
Vanessa Pigrum

This pandemic may be unprecedented in our lifetime, but there will always be other unforeseen disruptions ahead.

For these reasons, it is imperative that all of us develop the discipline to strengthen our ethical values, our moral courage and our ability to think and reason with clarity, in order to be prepared for the post-pandemic recovery and for future disruptive events we cannot yet imagine.

These are leadership traits that will never let you down.

Read more:

Ethical leadership starts with individual authenticity and integrity

2019 CA ANZ President Stephen Walker discusses with academic expert Professor Karin Lasthuizen how best to achieve ethical leadership.

More on ethical leadership