Personal Development: 9 Essential Skills For The Post-Pandemic Leader
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Following a stressful year of disruption, trauma, fear and loss, no company will ever be quite the same as it was before COVID-19. Neither will any employee. What that means is that no leader can lead the same way they did before, either.
As we move into recovery, leaders will have to deploy a whole new mindset and a whole new skill set. Not all of this is COVID-driven. We’ve known for years, decades even, that the old-school leadership model would have to change. But, for sure, the pandemic has accelerated the need for a new kind of leader.
On an individual level, that means “hyper-learning”—being able to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn by adapting to the reality of the world as it evolves, rather than seeking to defend your beliefs and ego. On an organizational level, it means creating an environment that allows and encourages everyone else to be hyper-learners as well.
Essentially, leaders must embrace the mindset and master the skills needed to create high engagement and enable continuous high performance in constantly changing times. As we move into recovery, leaders must be able to do the following:
Inner peace is a foundational building block for a hyper-learner for many reasons: It allows you to quiet your ego, stay open to the best ideas and connect with others in meaningful ways. And in times of great chaos (like right now), it helps you tune out the noise so you can do the kind of high-level critical thinking that allows you to make smart decisions.
Inner peace allows you to be kind of a port in the storm. A huge spotlight will be on leaders right now, both inside companies and in the external world. That means we need to be in firm control of our inner world.
People are still suffering, and emotional well-being matters. Remember that employees take their cues from you, so a state of calm is more important than ever. Part of helping neutralize anxiety is communication; when you don’t do it well and often, people will fill in the void with their own worst-case scenarios. Defusing anxiety is more than going through the motions of communication, though. It’s about communicating in ways that create human connection and relatedness. Now, more than ever, people need to feel cared about as unique human beings.
The workplace of the future is an idea meritocracy. The old caste system—a relic of the Industrial Revolution when the “command-and-control” leadership model reigned—is dead. Leaders need to inspire hope, but not in the sense of, “Don’t worry, we will rescue the rest of you.” The message needs to be, “Together, we will thrive.” Of course, this message must be backed by a workplace environment that allows for true collaboration. People must be able to have high-quality conversations, and it’s the leader’s job to create the right conditions for that to happen—and not let their own ego step in.
For instance, leaders need to know how to manage digital transformation. This is where the hyper-learning mindset really comes into play. Leaders must stay open to the future and really listen to customers, rather than clinging to old, preconceived ideas and hearing what they want to hear. Every company will be in the innovation business. Every organization will need to “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” as Wayne Gretzky so famously once said.
Change is the new given and impermanence is the new mindset. This will require embedding in your business a “story” than enables every employee to embrace change as opposed to being fearful of change or running away from it. That requires teaching employees how to go into the unknown and figure it out. People will need new tools to use, and small teams will be the structure needed to continuously adapt. Change is an iterative process—and change needs to be challenging but not overwhelming. Change is emotional. That means leaders need to understand the psychology of change: what kinds of emotions/behaviors to expect and how to guide people to positive emotions. When people know they must constantly learn, unlearn and relearn, then change isn’t some upsetting experience. It’s just life.
No one person can ever singlehandedly have the answers. It takes teamwork. People have to be able to arrive at smart answers quickly, and that means creating the conditions for collective brain flow to happen and building caring, trusting teams. While many factors play into good collaboration, an “otherness” focus is at the center. Otherness is both a mindset and a behavior. Leaders first need to overcome their own tendency to seek confirmation for what they believe. This means acknowledging that they need others to help them see solutions. They also need to behave in ways that show they respect the human dignity of others, and make sure all team members do the same.
Leaders need to seek feedback and embrace it graciously and gratefully, not oppose it. That takes humility. If you assume you know it all, you won’t be open to the ideas of others. Humility requires mastering the ego. While this may not be easy, it’s certainly possible to have a quiet ego once you get intentional about it. Mindfulness meditation is one method. Another good option is to practice gratitude by saying thank you more often, writing thank-you notes to employees and acknowledging often that you did not reach your leadership position all on your own. You had lots of help along the way.
As economic recovery takes hold and more opportunities begin to open up, we’ll see a mass exodus of people from companies where they were poorly treated during tough times. Be ready to capture them, if you want to, by taking steps to “humanize” your workplace culture. Essentially this means:
- Be an idea meritocracy. This means the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, irrespective of rank, compensation or power.
- Cultivate workplace positivity. Positive emotions enable cognitive processing, innovative thinking, learning and creativity. Negative emotions like fear and anxiety squelch them.
- Respect human dignity. Respect every employee as a unique human being worthy of the opportunity to grow and develop their skills and to be financially rewarded in a manner that validates their human dignity and gives them the opportunity to live a meaningful life.
- Operationalize “psychological safety” throughout your business. That requires you to build trust throughout your organization so people are enabled to do the “hard stuff” like give constructive feedback, challenge the status quo and find the courage to take risks.
- Meet people’s self-determination needs. In part, this means people must have input on how they do their jobs and feel a sense of competence in their work.
Adopt a new humanistic way of working. Leaders must focus on training and developing people so they can be their best selves. Without a whole company of people working at top capacity, it will be tough for any business to survive in a super-competitive marketplace. Every company will be in the human development business in addition to its core business. The quality of your human performance will ultimately be your strategic differentiator.
COVID has been a workplace disruptor. It has required human adaptation and embracing new ways of working. As we move over time into a post-COVID era, leaders must embrace the reality that the business world will not go back to operating as it did in early 2020. It is time to continue to move forward; the rewards may be exponential. Don’t let a good recovery go to waste.
Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, a Batten Fellow and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business, and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. He spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the past 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles and 60 Darden case studies. His work has appeared in more than 400 global media outlets including Fortune, European Business Review, HBR, SHRM, Fast Company, WIRED, Forbes, Inc., Huffington Post, Washington Post, Business Week, Financial Times, CNBC Squawk Box, Fox Business News with Maria Bartiroma, Big Think, WSJ Radio, Bloomberg Radio with Kathleen Hays, Dow Jones Radio, MSNBC Radio, Business Insider and Wharton Radio.