What is the most important step a leader can take? Out of all the lessons the past two years taught us, there was one lesson that really stuck with me. Although we commonly say that the first step is the hardest, I’ve learnt that the most important step a leader can take, is the next. When crises unfold, each subsequent step carries us further along and enables us to weather the storm as it changes direction along the way.
What’s more, the way in which we take the next step, be it for future planning or decision-making, has changed dramatically over the past months. While multiyear planning has been common before 2020, it will not suffice for businesses to keep up with the crises’ implications that are arriving and changing the status quo at overwhelming speed and scale. Instead, leaders must get used to a new world with new ways of doing business—where conditions keep changing. They will need to make decisions based on what they know now, as the future proves unpredictable, and no map can show a clear path to destination. Most importantly, this means that leaders will need to evaluate at all times and take one step after the next in a new pace that will last for many more years before it returns to a less turbulent level, if ever.
During the last two years, we have seen which leaders stood out and what made them successfully navigate the threat, and we got a glimpse into what skills leaders will require in a post-COVID-19 era, as it becomes apparent that the next years will be just as demanding on those entrusted with guiding their people.
LEADING WITH EMPATHY
Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders. But the pandemic has taken it on a new level of meaning and priority. While many leaders had to make tougher decisions than ever before—shutting down operations, cutting budgets or changing entire working structures—they also got to know their people better. They saw how colleagues live, but they were also generally very engaged with how others experienced hardship, as they had to be at the frontline of the crisis, constantly speaking to customers and employees to understand their needs. Those who were able to inspire and actively communicated with empathy could successfully maneuver teams and businesses.
Moving forward, leaders must continue the path of empathic leadership. As the pandemic drags on and employees have been straining to meet the demands of work and social life, as turnover is increasing and burnout has become more common, leaders need to step up once again. Only if they acknowledge their employees’ difficulties and only if they think about how a collective healing process could take shape, will they be able create a safe space. A space, which allows their people to recover from the trauma that each of us individually—and all of us together—lived through. Creating this safe space will not only take pressure from employees, but empathic leadership will also foster more loyalty and will help retain talent. As much as empathy helped leaders to connect and deal with people’s worries when the crisis hit, they will now need it to set the stage for recovery.
IDENTIFYING THE RIGHT INNOVATION
Empathy helped leaders to manage people and emotions, but another skill played a critical role for companies to take immediate action: innovation. Crises provide unique conditions that force us to think more boldly to create rapid change. Many leaders had to showcase their ability to come up with new ideas like never before. They had to anticipate what was about to come and how it would impact their business and people. What’s more, with companies’ vulnerabilities put at the spotlight, leaders had to figure out where things could be done differently.
Suddenly, opportunities for innovation were staring them in the face. Those who experimented and were able to fail, learn and try again, came up with innovations that oftentimes were key to their firm’s survival. The application of technology played an important role for sure; but in many cases, the actual mindset mattered more than capabilities. It allowed leaders to rally their greatest minds behind a common objective and promoted a newfound courage to bring forward ideas for keeping the business alive.
In a post-pandemic world, innovation will prepare the ground for further growth. While many warn, however, that companies should by any means avoid falling back to how things were before, I’d argue against that general statement. Not all innovations that we introduced are also a good fit for our new world. Leaders must not only continue to live and breathe the innovative mindset they found, but they will also need to critically reflect on some of the innovations they introduced. Because sustaining impactful innovation matters—not just innovating for the sake of innovation—leaders will need to assess what innovations were the right ones for the crisis, but not for the time after. To build on innovation for growth, those in position to navigate their companies’ future, will once again need to make hard decisions. They will need to define true innovations, reverse emergency solutions and focus on what’s right for the time coming.
GIVING YOUR PEOPLE MEANING
Through the pandemic thus far, more leaders had to increasingly answer two key questions: why should people care about our business and how can we show our value to employees, customers and societies? In short: leaders and companies had to convincingly communicate purpose. Why? Because unlike other crises before, COVID-19 prompted people to reflect on a deeper sense of purpose. Businesses, which successfully demonstrated their social license to operate could considerably strengthen their reputation for the next years to come. They were able to drive brand affinity among customers and employees and oftentimes even achieved a competitive edge when they needed it most in these critical times.
In the next years, leaders will need to follow the same rationale to balance internal challenges too. This is because purpose plays an increasingly important role for employees. While we witnessed an “all-for-one, one-for-all” spirit and collective lift in morale at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the first wave of unity already beginning to subside. However, leaders who manage to keep up this spirit and foster a sense of belonging and purpose will be able to better retain talent and gather the self-confidence needed to survive tough times. For only with self-confidence and with having a sense of purpose, employees are empowered to strive for more. They are encouraged to not shy away from transforming the world—with a mindset that can make all the difference between success and failure in a world after COVID-19.
TAKING YET ANOTHER NEXT STEP
The coronavirus pandemic has reached every country in the world. Many governments struggle with new lockdown measures, and despite the development of vaccines, many are still wondering what recovery could look like. Over the past months, leaders, as most of us, have experienced tough times. But for many of them, those tough times also made them discover an entirely new version of their company. A version that can serve as a prototype for a more robust organization, fit for a turbulent world after—or perhaps more accurately, with the virus.
In the end, I am convinced that those who guide with empathy, who seek solutions through innovation, who can show their firm’s purpose and—of course—those who never give up on taking yet another next step, will eventually withstand. The first step is one of many. But the next step isn’t just a choice. It’s a commitment. And if there’s one thing that probably never changes about leadership, it’s that it will require commitment—to people, innovation and purpose—to keep going in the face of future crises.
APCO alumnus Robert Ardelt co-authored this post.