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Why the pandemic has changed what we want in a leader

Pretty young dreamy African-American office worker standing with arms crossed and looking at camera.
The coronavirus crisis has redefined the meaning of leadership. Photo: Getty

In under a year, COVID-19 has transformed the way we work. Instead of commuting to city centre workplaces, many office employees are now working from their kitchens — and logging onto Zoom, Teams and Hangouts instead of gathering in meeting rooms.

The pandemic has also changed what we want from our jobs too. Rather than a big salary, work perks and swanky offices, there is now a greater focus on “meaningful” work and jobs that positively contribute to society. And in many ways, the coronavirus crisis has redefined the meaning of leadership.

According to a recent survey from the coaching platform theMakings, 41% of British workers now believe one of the most valuable traits in a potential leader is someone who is supportive, followed by someone who is empathetic (26%) and trusting (23%). Essentially, we want leaders who are human.

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“Good leadership has always been about empowerment, accountability and encouraging independent thought amid solid collaboration. The pandemic though, has played a role in adjusting our view of a good leader through the enhanced requirement for pastoral care, empathy and understanding at a more human level,” says Gavin Perrett, a personal development and business coach and creative director at Identity Resource.

“Despite the fractious nature of our society at the moment, the one element that binds us all together regardless of whether we are employers or employees is the fact that the pandemic does not discriminate according to company hierarchy.”

Traditionally, the traits we associated with leadership were all along the same lines: Decisive, strong and determined. For years, there was a prevailing stereotype of leaders as the type of people to make cut-throat, difficult decisions at the drop of a hat, often to the benefit of corporations and the detriment of workers.

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According to Perret, though, the coronavirus pandemic has helped trigger a long-awaited shift. Of course, employees want to know that the cash flow of their business is secure to avoid redundancies. But in these anxious and uncertain times, they want empathy and a safe space to share concerns without judgement.

“People want a flexible approach to their needs, particularly in relation to the working environment and perception of risk from a health and safety perspective,” he says. “They also expect their managers and leaders to instinctively know how to pivot to adapt to the ever-changing landscape that the pandemic has forced upon us.”

It’s well-documented that showing kindness and compassion to employees has a direct and positive impact on their engagement, job satisfaction and productivity, all of which benefit the bottom line. In fact, a 2019 study by Oxford University's Saïd Business School found workers are 13% more productive when happy.

Whether the working world changes permanently or if this is a temporary attitudinal shift remains to be seen. Perrett believes some leaders may well revert back to “normal” when circumstances permit. However, a good leader will explore what worked well for the business during the pandemic.

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“A good leader will consult their staff, suppliers and clients to ask them which of the changes to processes, communication etc has worked well for them and that they would like to see continued. I believe this will separate the great leaders from the okay leaders,” he says.

So how can leaders be more in tune with people’s needs? Firstly, checking in with staff more regularly and asking them how they are is important. This doesn’t mean checking up on them or monitoring their progress, per se, but carrying out regular wellbeing checks. Ensuring people have a manageable workload and creating a culture in which they can say if they have too much on is crucial.

“Make it abundantly clear to staff that if they are struggling with their mental health that they are welcome to talk about it should they wish to, and that employers will accommodate any requirements to seek professional help,” Perret says.

“Also, maybe setting aside some group time over coffee to share how everyone is feeling and to compare experiences. This helps people to realise that they aren't alone with their anxieties which will almost certainly and immediately reduce their stress levels.”