Resetting the Leadership Agenda Post-COVID-19
A post-pandemic era will require us to embrace new definitions of leadership—and apply new approaches to teaching and learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a seismic effect on institutions that are central to our economic system and communities, including businesses and business schools. Leaders and employees all are asking far-ranging questions about the future: What will be the legacy of the pandemic? What kinds of leadership skills will they need in order to navigate the post-COVID world successfully?
A new report from the CEMS–Global Alliance in Management Education sheds light on the potential long-term impact of the pandemic. At CEMS, we surveyed 1,711 individuals across 71 countries, including alumni of the CEMS Master’s in Management degree program and business leaders at CEMS partner companies.
We heard from leaders, leadership development professionals, and young graduates entering the workforce at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. They represent nearly every industry, but the majority come from consulting, technology, financial services, and consumer goods sectors. We augmented our survey results with findings from in-depth interviews and panel discussions.
The aims of the research were threefold:
- To understand the impact of the pandemic on multinational organizations and globally dispersed teams.
- To learn how respondents think the pandemic will change business markets, processes, and operations.
- To determine what leadership skills and qualities respondents believe are necessary to succeed in the so-called new normal.
What emerged was a striking divide in opinion on a key question: Will the long-term impact of the pandemic be negative or positive?
Rethinking the Way We Work
Although the pandemic’s negative financial and human impacts are obvious, respondents also maintain a sense of optimism. They view it as a positive that the pandemic has compelled leaders to question the status quo and rethink their business-as-usual assumptions. Business schools, too, have had to rethink how they should best educate future leaders.
At the same time, the report’s findings suggest that leaders and organizations need to take stock of several critical shifts and challenges, which are driving innovation in four areas:
New markets. Respondents emphasize that the crisis will continue to change our world through its impact on global markets, operations, and supply chains. It will change how we produce goods and how we travel.
New ways of communicating. Respondents are struck by how the pandemic has transformed the way they connect with colleagues and stakeholders around the world. They cited the need to juggle the many challenges of building and maintaining relationships via digital communication.
A clear majority believe they will continue to communicate with international colleagues as regularly or even more frequently in the post-pandemic era. However, 33 percent believe that the quality of their working relationships will suffer from continued reliance on virtual communication. Only 23 percent think that their relationships might improve.
New ways of working. Respondents report that the move from working from fixed office locations to embracing more flexible “work anywhere” approaches has forced them to evaluate how they achieve work-life balance and define their sense of purpose.
New opportunities and attitudes toward work. Despite the negative social and economic effects of the pandemic, respondents indicate that the pandemic has provided them—as well as their organizations—with valuable opportunities for innovation. Some report that their organizations have pivoted operations successfully during the crisis by seeking out new markets and new ways of connecting to customers.
Because they have had to abandon many tried-and-tested elements of organizational culture, CEMS alumni and corporate partners have had to become more agile and resilient. They also have faced greater pressure to be more innovative. They note they have had to be better prepared to seize opportunities and make decisions more quickly.
On balance, respondents know their organizations will face challenges, but they appreciate that the COVID crisis has created opportunities to stop, reflect, and learn. We not only have had to examine our leadership skills and styles, but we also have had to re-think many processes and frameworks that we have taken for granted. That reality has opened up opportunities for us to re-think every aspect of our organizations.
Redefining Leadership for Good
According to the survey, the pandemic has redefined leadership in what respondents view as irrevocable ways. In the post-COVID era, they say, leaders will need new skills and competencies to succeed in this changed and changing environment.
Respondents believe leadership skills such as openness, empathy, resilience, and the ability to communicate will be of greater importance post-crisis. Pre-pandemic, 13 percent would have pointed to resilience as a necessary leadership skill; post-pandemic, that number increases to 34 percent. Other front-runner competencies that will help leaders navigate the new normal are core humane skills such as altruism and mindfulness, according to respondents.
Leadership skills such as openness, empathy, resilience, altruism, and the ability to communicate are now of greater importance.
At the same time, strategic vision has declined slightly in perceived importance—cited by 73 percent pre-crisis, but just 68 percent post-crisis. Those who cited technical skills as important fell from 13 percent to 7 percent.
The increased focus on humane skills might seem surprising given how much attention has been paid to the impact of artificial intelligence and digital transformation on the workplace. However, this change in priorities also reflects our very human tendency to achieve balance, particularly when our world has been so fundamentally disrupted.
Respondents note that the line between their work and personal lives has been blurred at best and obliterated at worst. That’s why they note that good leaders will have to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life that fell away during the pandemic.
In addition, respondents emphasize that business leaders need to make investment in human capital—through methods such as training and education—a chief priority. Likewise, respondents note that the leadership development activities offered in business schools should expose students to multicultural experiences and help them build their global networks.
Building Humane Skills and Attributes
The paper provides a set of recommendations for business leaders, business school administrators, and young professionals. Among them, these four stand out as most important:
Build a sense of psychological safety. During crises, people need spaces where they can learn to be their best selves. They need opportunities to engage with each other even while they work remotely, such as virtual lunches and similar social interactions. They also need to feel as if their organizations have taken steps to safeguard their ability to be productive, to be innovative, and to prosper under pressure. Those we interviewed suggested that organizations could create these opportunities through strategies such as mentorship and reverse mentorship, employee assistance programs that provide mental health support, and mindfulness training.
To provide a sense of safety, leaders need to create cultures that acknowledge and allow for the mental and emotional pressures that people will face while working from home. Leaders also need to encourage people to take time for introspection and self-reflection.
Emphasize greater personal autonomy. When people have autonomy, they have more freedom to take advantage of breakthrough methodologies. As a result, they are in a better position to help their organizations stay ahead of the innovation curve.
Faculty will serve students better by acting as mentors and coaches who empower learners as co-creators in their own development.
Reframe learning. For business schools, the swift move to online education has highlighted a need to design learning experiences that rely less on traditional lecture formats. Instead, faculty will serve students better by acting as mentors and coaches who empower learners as co-creators in their own development. Interviewees also recommended that schools invest more in experiential learning, encourage more cross-cultural interactions, and help faculty upskill in the latest digital learning technologies.
Encourage people to take ownership of their self-development. For students and young professionals, especially, it will become increasingly important to take ownership of becoming their best selves. That means taking responsibility for building their self-knowledge, prioritizing autonomy, cultivating innovation mindsets, and developing the resilience they will need to unearth opportunities and expand their networks.
However, they will achieve these outcomes only if they take time to reflect on their sense of purpose, and only if they engage in critical self-evaluations that help them identify areas where their skills are strongest and areas where they most need improvement. They must learn to take risks, expand their life experiences, stay connected, and seize opportunities to build their networks.
The pandemic has touched every corner of the globe in ways that are positive, negative, and neutral. It has unraveled systems that we thought were sacred; it has exposed flaws in long-held assumptions and raised questions about the status quo.
But in the process, the crisis also has given us a unique opportunity to reassess the way we do business and change our systems and cultures for the better. As the report suggests, we all need to develop a more humane skill set—including the ability to show compassion and a willingness to interact benevolently with each other.
Only by cultivating these skills will we be able to bridge the social and geographical divides that the pandemic has created. And only by applying these skills to the challenges we face will we reemerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
Greg Whitwell is dean at the University of Sydney Business School and chair of CEMS, the Global Alliance in Management Education. The alliance includes 34 business schools and universities, 68 multinational corporations, and seven nongovernmental organizations that collaborate to deliver the CEMS Master’s in International Management program.