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Guest opinion: New leadership practices for a new era


The past year has been a “perfect storm” of five global crises: pandemic, economic, racial, climate and leadership. And the polarization of society is on top of all of these challenges. As one crisis builds on the next, it is easy to long for the way life used to be. While we don’t know what the new reality will be after COVID-19, most authorities are telling us the world will not return to normal as we knew it. 

Last summer, I hosted a Virtual Leadership Summit in which I interviewed more than 20 thought leaders. Some of them were former CEOs, top executive coaches and others were influencers. One of the questions I asked each of them was: How do you predict leadership will change in the future as a result of the global pandemic? 

A clear theme emerged: COVID has changed the game and in the future caring for employees’ well-being will become a significant management priority. 

McKinsey consultants Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, Kevin Sneader and Kurt Strovink have advised hundreds of CEOs since the pandemic first hit. They wrote in “The CEO Moment: Leadership for a New Era” that an opportunity exists “to lead in new, more positive and impactful ways.” 

Elevate ‘to be’ to the same level as ‘to do’ 

Frances Hesselbein, president and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Institute, likes to say that “leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are.” The “perfect storm” requires leaders to “show up” in ways that are different from the past. This is exactly what Deward, Keller, Sneader and Strovink discovered. 

“In a moment of crisis, everyone looks to their leader,” and they found CEOs especially felt this during the pandemic. David Schwimmer, CEO of London Stock Exchange Group, said: “People are looking to me for a different kind of leadership. In a normal environment, it’s about business leadership and setting strategy, as well as culture and people decisions. In this environment, it’s about helping people maintain morale. It’s about people being prepared for whatever may come in the face of uncertainty.” 

As a result, the McKinsey consultants found leaders are starting to use a different lens to take notice of how members of their senior team operate. Reinforcing the conclusions in my Virtual Leadership Summit, they found the most notable feature of how CEOs are leading differently is they are showing more of their humanity. Many leaders have tried to create a stronger, more cohesive and motivated workforce. 

Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen, gave these examples of how he has elevated “to be” to the same level as “to do.” 

“The very first week we set up a daily executive-management meeting at 5 p.m. That’s important from a decision-making point of view, but it’s even more important for touching base and showing empathy. We’re now in each other’s homes — you’re seeing my study, and we’ve met each other’s families. … I asked all my direct reports, ‘Is there someone who wants me to reach out to someone who’s doing a great job or someone who’s struggling? Maybe someone who has a relative with COVID-19?’ Sometimes all that’s needed is a word of encouragement to show you care.” 

Elevating “to be” should change how CEOs and their organizations select, train, coach, recognize and reward leaders. As CEOs make this shift permanent, the McKinsey consultants concluded that CEOs in conjunction with their chief human resources officer, should ask these questions: 

• What will I look for differently in leaders as a result of what I’ve learned during the pandemic? 
• What actions should I take in the near term to reinforce what “being” attributes will be of elevated importance going forward? 
• How can these attributes be hardwired into our people to ensure they are institutionalized in how we develop, reward and promote?

When the pressure is off, will CEOs return to operating as before or will they choose a new way of leading — of being? Time will tell, but my hope is we will have new leadership practices for the new era.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership author, speaker, professor, and coach. She can be reached at www.JannFreed.com.

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