When Covid hit, organisational leaders had to step up to a role that they could never have anticipated. They had to make significant and quick decisions that impacted every aspect of the organisation. They developed strategies to take the organisation forward, whilst protecting the complex needs of their employees, suppliers and customers.
Looking back at the approach many took during this time.
Transformational - based on intrinsic rewards (motivation, stimulation)
Attributed charisma/idealised influence - C suite leaders built admiration and trust by providing a clear plan and direction. They took different scenarios into consideration. Many organisations had significant rainy day funds in place, from a bumper few years ,to support the organisation. Many stated that they would put their customers and employees first.
Inspirational motivation - many leaders were enthusiastic and genuine in sharing thoughts and ideas. They motivated followers to work hard towards goals and support their team mates and customers by being flexible and empathetic.
Intellectual Stimulation - They stayed informed on the global situation and the economic situation. They provided insights and well delivered thoughts on how the company could drive towards its goals during the crisis. Many interacted regularly with C suites from other companies.
Individualised consideration - organisations made changes to their performance models. They helped create autonomy and clarity for people when they were no longer physically together. Team members were given clear ownership of their work. This made a huge difference in terms of building high performing distributed teams.
Transactional - reward based
Contingent reward - many organisations were generous with rewards. They sent gifts to employees, provided stipends for work from home arrangements. They gave extra time off to people and were supportive of people with young families. People felt like they were appreciated for their work.
This all sounds very supportive, so where did it go wrong..
The leadership set annual goals that they expected teams to deliver upon. Pay rises and bonuses were based on these goals. This encouraged a lot of competition and a determination to be the best.
Management by exception - the annual goals were rigorously monitored. So whilst the organisation were preaching self care, there were still regular reviews of the goals and pressure to meet the committed objectives.
Laissez-faire - non-leadership
Laissez-faire leadership - the reality was that deliverables had to be met. Managers became burnt out. They talked the talk of the C-suite but simply could not walk the walk. An underbelly of toxicity emerged within many companies. In many cases people left and it was swept under the carpet, with companies being able to hide behind remote work. Middle managers were allowed to run departments their own way. As long as deliverables were being met, bad behaviour was ignored.
This disconnect boiled down to C suite leaders being disingenuous. Many companies, such as big tech, grew successful businesses through a mainly transformational approach. A brilliant visionary who was able to gather followers in good times, and set an aggressive but inspiring goal. However there were some fundamental flaws in this type of transformational leadership style. The focus was on this leader, and not necessarily on the managers who are in the weeds of the organisation’s operations. A CEO promises care and compassion for the people on the ground. They showers them with days off, gifts and supports to work from home. But on the other hand their managers underneath are pushed to hit aggressive goals, creating a mismatch. During Covid, managers and their subordinates were told they could look after their mental health and care for family members, but there was no let up on the work. In many organisations it increased, and companies turned a blind eye to people working extremely long hours if they saw results. It caused a huge rift within organisations and created burn out.
Burn out, disillusionment, demotivation.
The Covid crisis was one that no one could have predicted. It required the ability to pivot, to make strong choices and to be empathetic. Good leaders had to listen or they failed in their duty to their teams. As we look towards a further bumpy road of layoffs and belt tightening, leaders will need to shuffle around the tools in their tool box. The world has changed, and peoples priorities, tolerance levels and expectations are different. The strongest leaders will have adapted to this. “Transparency, seeing ourselves and each other as people first, a willingness to adapt and an openness to listen. These are the new characteristics of strong leadership that will determine who thrives in this new economy.” (Erin Joy, 2021) Hopefully organisations can respond to this and be proud of the company they have evolved to become.
Erin Joy (2021) The future of leadership: Skills to look for in business leaders post-COVID-19. Available at: https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2021/03/11/the-future-of-leadership-skills-to-look-for-in-business-leaders-post-covid-19/