In ordinary times good leadership is the foundation of strong and healthy organizations, but what of leadership in a pandemic? What rises to the top in terms of qualities and behaviors that “separate the men from the boys”? Well, as it turns out it might just be women. 

A recent Forbes article by Avivah Wittenbeg-Cox notes that countries with the lowest death rates –from Iceland in the Northern Hemisphere to New Zealand in the Southern– had one thing in common, women leaders at the helm.  

While correlation is not causation, it’s worth being curious what attributes these women demonstrate during this crisis and what the implications might be for business leaders in the “New Normal”. 

Whatever your gender identity, we offer some observations from three of these inspiring women and practical ways to operationalize the “New Normal” of leadership.

Transparency

 Leading with transparency requires a willingness to be open, even in vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated then when the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, gave a rare televised speech that was transparent about the facts known and unknown, characteristically rational about personal duty to combat the virus, and rather uncharacteristically sentimental of the challenges still ahead. Transparency means sharing the good and the bad, as well as seeking honest feedback. There should be no surprises or concerns, nor indecisive behavior that may dilute or obfuscate decision-making. Moreover, transparent leaders strive to practice what they preach, set crystal-clear expectations, and communicate effectively with every member of their team. 

To become a more transparent leader:

  • Over-invest in communication by providing clear, simple and frequent updates 
  • Don’t speculate, white lie or sugar-coat the message 
  •  Give people a “behind the scenes” look at different options being considered; this isn’t the time for secrecy 
  • Involve employees and ask for feedback 
  • Understand the difference between sharing and oversharing (divulging too much personal information)

Approachability

Approachability is not the same as likability. Narcissistically demanding that people like you is not the same as having people feel comfortable coming and talking to you. Approachability signals that leaders stand with the group rather than apart from them. A clear demonstration of this is how Prime Minister Jacinda Arden addresses the nation in her frequent Facebook Live updates. She doesn’t talk at people but with them, switching to answering New Zealanders’ questions through the livestream chat function while explaining nonchalantly that she has just put her toddler to bed. She also acknowledges every question addressing the individual by name, as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends. Her attire is a comfy sweatshirt and not a podium in sight. Being ‘one of us’ may well be a starting point but it doesn’t end there. 

  To become a more approachable leader:

  • Show warmth – smile, even if it’s through a video call, as nonverbal cues matter now more than ever 
  • Make time for people and don’t imply that there is a more important place to be, there is not
  • Avoid overreacting to bad news; hardwired as we are to respond to negativity, consciously temper your mood
  • Thank people for bringing information to your attention whether it is good or bad
  • Hosting a video call from the office in your business attire might seem like a good way to show normalcy – but not for those listening from home in their sweatpants 
  • Avoid the vestiges of hierarchy in your Zoom background, e.g. your degree from an elite university 
  • Allow your life to be visible, e.g. your pets roaming around and kids’ artwork on the wall

Inclusiveness

Inclusive leaders understand the importance of creating an environment where all individuals feel safe and empowered to express their opinions freely. These leaders also engender a sense of group identity to ensure all members value others’ knowledge and capabilities toward a common goal. When Prime Minister Jacinda Arden repeatedly refers to New Zealanders as a “ team of 5 million”, she creates a rallying cry to bolster solidarity and generate an esprit de corps. This is not a political ploy to boost ratings nor corporate cronyism. 

A sense of fairness is also critical to maintain team cohesiveness toward a common purpose. Never was this more clearly stated than when the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, held a teleconference specifically for the country’s children, taking time to explain that “it’s ok to be scared”. Solberg didn’t simplify her language or diminish the concerns of her younger audience, instead she answered their questions with curiosity and empathy. She intuitively understands that leaders don’t treat some group members better than others because of their status, utility or experience.

To become a more inclusive leader: 

  • Start video conferences by acknowledging all those in attendance
  • Have regular check-ins, even if it’s simply just asking how they’re doing 
  • Demonstrate grace in moments when personal priorities, such as screaming children, supersede work 
  • Share ways in which you and your family are adapting as well as struggling in the “New Normal”
  • Create a shared remote social space (book clubs, happy hours, chat groups, trivia etc.) for people to support and engage with each other beyond work 
  • Include yourself: manage your own physical and mental health in order to have head and heart space for others

The most important word in a leader’s lexicon is “we” not “I”. Leadership flows from the mutual benefits that leaders and followers provide each other, not from a divine rite of passage, election or succession in an organization. When a pandemic push comes to a “social distancing” shove, what matters most is that both the leader and followers trust and feel psychologically connected to each other. 

Marisa Paterson is a leadership specialist and Chartered Psychologist who helps CEOs and leaders solve their toughest and most complex people challenges.

Darby Bukowski works with executive leaders to align and shape organizational and people capabilities with business strategy to achieve operational objectives. 

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