While dealing with the disruptions and changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been struck by some unexpected benefits that it has produced. I am also drawn to what they could mean for the future – if leaders look to leverage them.
After weeks of near-total lockdown, I can now see bright stars at night from my house outside Boston and a crystal-clear view back towards the city. I’m also reminded of the remarkable before-and-after photos of Mumbai that I saw online recently, photos that now show no visible pollution. What’s more, we all have seen office buildings empty out overnight as employees change to working from home and interacting virtually.
Most of us have read or heard the stories of companies shifting from manufacturing products that are in less demand to producing medical products needed to protect people from the virus. And we have seen businesses and leaders who have altered their focus from revenue and profit to the safety and health of employees and customers, and from providing products and services for a fee to providing them pro bono to help those in need.
Yes, there is plenty of sad and challenging news around COVID-19, but some benefits are accruing from this pandemic, including:
- A cleaner environment – due to less driving and reduced industrial pollution
- Accelerated shift to virtual working – for service-oriented businesses and organizations
- Putting people above profits – recognizing the importance of prioritizing humanity over money
- Stepping up to help others – seeing that people will even risk their lives to help others in a crisis
- Seeing that leadership counts – inspiring and bringing people together to do whatever is needed now
How to Extend the Benefits
These and other positive trends have implications for how leaders show up in the future. We’re emerging into a different world where most of us will be working more virtually and where adapting to a “new normal” will take many forms. We know there are different challenges ahead, many of which will require new approaches to leadership. Here are some early green shoots to consider:
- Treat your employees as customers: Recognize that your employees are the people who create and deliver your products and services to your company’s customers, so treat them as you would like them to treat your customers. Ask what they need to get through this crisis, listen to what they say, and do what you can do to address what they need. Make sure your employees know that you value and appreciate what they are doing and that you are there to support them. If possible, do things that go beyond what they expect to make them feel appreciated and to build their morale, commitment, and loyalty.
- Be the best leader you can be: Analyze the good and bad examples of leadership behavior during this pandemic. Identify the leadership qualities and behavior that you would want to lead you, such as communicating frequently, making personal connections, being honest and transparent, exhibiting realistic optimism, humility, and vulnerability. Model those behaviors and enlist the help of mentors or coaches to assist you in your efforts. Elicit their ideas and let them know you need their help.
- Become more purpose-driven: During this pandemic, extend your organization’s mission beyond the need to ensure that your business survives and is financially successful. Commit to or expand programs or activities that involve your employees in “giving back” to their communities; this will not only help people survive the crisis but will add more meaning to employees’ working lives and increase their engagement and commitment. Then continue that purpose-driven focus as the current crisis subsides, because employees tend to feel better about working for organizations that have a higher purpose.
Crises like this pandemic create great challenges, but they also create great opportunities. The trick is to recognize and address both with optimism for how things can be different in the future. That is the job of great leaders – to help us do both.