By Professor Ahmed Shaikh, Managing Director of REGENT Business School
We are living in the interregnum between the COVID-19 pandemic and the post-pandemic era, where all spheres of life have been severely disrupted. Globally, almost everyone has experienced a life-altering impact on their professional and personal lives. The world was turned on its head. From being home-bound to working online, no person has been spared the deleterious effects of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has not just changed the world but also changed the fundamentals of the workplace ecosystem in myriad ways. During the past 2 years, for example, business leaders globally were coerced to balance the twin imperatives of ‘lives and livelihoods’. This created profound new challenges for business leadership with no precedents in recent history.
This sudden shift in lifestyles has affected our intrinsic values and ideals, and there has never been a time in the history of the world where there has been a greater need for transformational leadership. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the role businesses play in society and it has also created a clear challenge for leaders in terms of the world of work. This creates two interrelated imperatives for leaders, even as they continue prioritising health, workplace safety and work-life balance.
As the world begins to edge closer to some kind of normality, it is critical that leaders do not lose sight of the skills they developed and honed during the pandemic. Consequently, it has become incumbent on them to lead effectively in a post-pandemic era where business organisations in their totality are facing indisputable fragile futures.
Whilst it is still early days to speculate about a future post-pandemic world, at the broad level there will be a need for a pivotal shift in leadership to step forward boldly and deal with 3 immediate major challenges that threaten the very essence and sustainability of enterprises.
In the first instance, leadership will need to find meaningful ways to make the world of work inclusive and better for everyone; secondly, leadership will have to leverage the lessons learnt from the past 2 years to rapidly innovate and match new products and services with consumption patterns that have changed radically; and finally, it will become imperative for leadership to re-imagine notions of value creation and sustainability in the context of a world that has been fundamentally distorted by the pandemic.
Moreover, given that the pandemic presented the world with one of the most poignant moments in its history, it will become critical for leadership to use this juncture as an opportunity to create fairer, more inclusive, more equitable and more just places to work. Towards this end, a few intrinsic human values and skills are identified as key motivators for the new leadership to embrace. Indeed, it has become abundantly clear that to emerge from the crisis stronger and more resilient requires re-thinking what it means to lead and prioritising purpose, trust, empathy and inclusivity.
The Human Centric Approach to leadership, will more than ever, be about creating the conditions in which personnel can thrive and perform at their best. It is about empowering people, making them feel valued, equipping them with what they need and supporting their overall wellness. Encouraging emotional wellbeing and mental health ahead of hard business KPIs should become the new norm for leadership. This new participatory leadership will support staff on how they want to shape their world of work. In this new dawn, redefining corporate culture around the precept of ‘people before profit’ has to become the new hallmark of transformational leadership.
Various studies have shown that during the pandemic leaders have become much more emotionally responsive to the challenges that their employees have faced both in and out of the office. This issue of empathy has risen phenomenally with everyone making their way through this pandemic together, especially in checking one another’s wellbeing. Deeper relationships help create a much more comfortable, safer feeling atmosphere, which inspires employees to do their best. It also promotes greater collaboration and understanding between team members, irrespective of any differences in age, gender, culture, or personality. Ultimately, when everyone feels respected, understood, and valued, the team’s efficiency takes on an upward trajectory. Empathy can be a great driver of innovation. Feeling secure and valued in the workplace, with trusting relationships, will help many to feel more comfortable and encouraged when taking risks.
We are all keenly aware that during the pandemic leadership was forced to make rapid and informed decisions amid uncertainty. Gone are the days when leaders could make decisions on past experience. Agility has become the key word in this Black Swan world, where leaders have realised that they do not have all the answers, but have to make critical decisions using the power of their teams, encouraging experimentation to co-create the right solutions for the new pandemic-based challenges.
Finally, if the pandemic taught leadership anything, it is the importance of authenticity, vulnerability and coming together as agile, collaborative and compassionate teams to drive results. The time has arrived to reflect on the positive lessons learned and to recalibrate the critical traits of leadership as we enter the post pandemic era with an optimistic outlook.
Equally, our organisations will require life-changing leadership approaches to revive weary and floundering enterprises and restore the physical and mental well being of their aggrieved human resources.
Professor Ahmed Shaikh is a Senior Academic and Researcher and the Managing Director of REGENT Business School.