Leaders will show their softer side post-Covid, research claims


A softer, more humane approach to leadership will offer greater value in a post-Covid world, according to research from management education alliance CEMS.

CEMS surveyed 1,711 alumni of schools in its network and corporate partners on what they will consider important as organisations emerge from the pandemic crisis and how these priorities have shifted from before.

Resilience and empathy experienced a clear increase in how they were perceived, with 43% of respondents ranking these in their top three leadership qualities post-crisis, compared to 38% before.

Conversely, strategic vision ranked as a top-three priority for 75% of leaders prior to the pandemic, but sunk to 68% post-Covid. Just 5% of those surveyed thought “commanding presence and authority” would be a key leadership quality in the long term.

More than half of those surveyed thought the impact of the pandemic would be both positive and negative, citing changes such as more rapid decision-making and a greater capacity for resilience as plusses.

Job losses, an increase in mergers and acquisitions and a drop in revenue were cited as upcoming challenges posed by the aftermath of the pandemic.

However, the tough environment would be a good breeding ground for innovation, the report claimed, including in how leaders spend their time learning.

“We have been presented with a rare opportunity to redefine our business-as-usual approach,” said the report.

“The traditional approaches to learning in large lecture theatres and leadership based on staid and inflexible ideas are dead. What has emerged from this crisis is the transformative effect of open and empathetic leadership.”

CEMS proposed three actions for leaders to navigate through the upcoming turbulence:

  • to build psychological safety for people to be their best selves;
  • to drive greater autonomy by reframing how people learn and stay ahead of the innovation curve; and
  • to build an innovation mindset, have the resilience to unearth opportunities and expand their networks.

Heidi Robertson, group head of diversity, inclusion and employer brand at automation company ABB, said the research showed that it was important for organisations to build “trust-based leadership” rather than trying to exert control.

“People must feel motivated, empowered and inspired to be self-driven and, crucially, trust must run two-ways,” she said.

“Company values and culture become increasingly important – the glue that ties the employees together – when the working models are changing, and the environment is in constant flux and of unstable character.

“If managed well, this crisis can lead to an even stronger unity and feeling of belonging, as a sense of urgency drives and pulls the workforce in the same direction.”

Robertson added that this shift in culture would see changes to perceptions of hierarchy and mobility of talent.

“Physical presence is not the sole key factor of successful delivery and performance,” she added.

“The pandemic has also underlined and strengthened the findings of historical research on the definition of successful leadership – linked to empowerment, empathy, accountability and trust. Micro-management, monitoring and control belong to the past.”

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