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Leadership in a Crisis and Beyond

COVID-19 caused many businesses to feel as if they ran straight into a stone wall at full speed. The economy was rolling along, unemployment was low, and there was a sense of optimism. In an instant, everything changed. We have lived through a few months of the pandemic, but business leaders are concerned about their companies long-term. This is a new, uncertain environment.

As companies plan forward, who will lead? There’s no playbook for what is going on; new leaders must navigate a path familiar to no one.

Proven expertise in organization, technical or functional leadership is important but no longer enough. Today’s leaders must possess the background and acumen to lead in a pandemic-driven environment. In an ill-defined, still-evolving landscape, it’s important to get it right when choosing new leaders. For the decision maker seeking to hire a new leader, what else in that person’s background will indicate the ability to navigate the unknown?

Here are a few critical traits.

1. Strong leaders must be genuinely empathetic. They will tackle this oncoming train with a firm and steady hand on the wheel. A leader must set a course and an example. 2. The ability to lead a virtual team is an absolute must. Working from home has quickly become a survival technique. Leaders of virtual workers were given an immediate task to structure their workforce with the proper tools – from IT requirements to systems keeping communication, processes and procedures moving in the right directions. This has become a juggling act for most organizations, and the success of it is only as good as the person leading the way. Leaders in this new environment need solid systems and a pragmatic structure with effective planning, oversight – and communication to lead, motivate and retain the best people. 3. The instant shift to WFH has resulted in other challenges for organizations: performance measurement and accountability, for example. In this suddenly, almost exclusively, virtual world where it’s easier for employees to become almost invisible, how does one recognize and reward those who provide outstanding performance? Do we have all of the facts to make that judgement call? Individual circumstances vary. What are the optimal working conditions, and how does an organization provide support? 4. Effectiveness at building and sustaining relationships is critical. 5. Knowledge alone doesn’t make an effective leader, but leaders must have a handle on facts and how to create a vision for the future – all the more difficult given we have no clear picture of that future. 6. Experience still counts! The greater challenges a leader has faced and gone through in the past may shed light on the individual’s ability to learn from and share more with others.

Today’s leaders face complex problems. Navigating a transition from established operations to a pandemic mode requires effective change management. For the companies hiring talent, a clear understanding of candidates’ previous successes, failures and processes is critical. So, too, is their communications and engagement of others; what they learned and what in retrospect they would have done differently. As new and unexpected realities surfaced, have they demonstrated agility to make mid- course corrections?

New leaders will do best in organizations ready for change and prepared for the transition. Effectiveness doesn’t come from just one individual. The team will have to mesh with one another and openly share complementary information and viewpoints. Is that light at the end of the tunnel an approaching train or really light? A good leader is someone who has seen both, or at least knows the difference.


Stan Davis is the Founding Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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