Health and Healthcare Systems

3 leadership lessons from the age of coronavirus

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a news conference prior to the anniversary of the mosque attacks that took place the prior year in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 13, 2020.  REUTERS/Martin Hunter

Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her leadership during COVID-19. Image: REUTERS/Martin Hunter

Harry Kretchmer
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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  • Female leaders including New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern have provided strong leadership models during COVID-19.
  • It's thought compassionate leadership can help sustain productivity gains.
  • Research also shows agile organizations have performed best during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has provided us with many lessons in crisis management. Many of the most successful leaders and companies have demonstrated strong people skills, pivoting their organizations by supporting employees and listening to what customers want.

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Many of these lessons could help future-proof organizations for the uncertain road ahead. Here are three of the most important:

COVID-19 cases and deaths.
COVID-19 cases and deaths: Comparing female-led and male-led countries with similar populations Image: VoxEU/Garikipati & Kambhampati

1. Lead with empathy and honesty

It has often been reported that nations led by women have handled the crisis well, particularly in the case of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Indeed, many countries with female leaders have, so far, experienced lower death rates than their neighbours – compare Germany’s 11 deaths per 100,000 people to France’s 45 and the United Kingdom’s 70. But are women leaders really the reason?

Two economics professors who gave female-led countries a “nearest neighbour analysis” think so. Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati studied coronavirus cases and death rates, as well as variables including population size and spending on health, and found outcomes to be “systematically better” in countries led by women.

A key factor identified is that female-led countries locked down earlier. This could be, they speculate, because women leaders were more risk-averse about the impact of the virus on the population than men. They also say decisive and clear communication and participative leadership styles could have played a part.

It’s true not all countries led by women have had low death rates – Belgium’s is among the highest in the world. And comparing nations can be tricky. But there does seem to be a valuable leadership lesson here: empathy, warmth and transparency serve an important purpose – whomever they come from.

2. Be agile

‘Agility’ is everywhere in management guides. Harvard Business Review (HBR) says John Deere uses it to develop new machines, and National Public Radio makes programmes that way. So what exactly is agility?

HBR puts it this way: agile is about “taking people out of their functional silos and putting them in self-managed and customer-focused multidisciplinary teams.” In other words, it’s highly adaptable to the multiple and rapidly evolving demands of a crisis like COVID-19.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

But do agile models deliver? McKinsey analysed 25 companies that had recently undergone an agile transformation. Their agile units responded better to COVID-19 shocks than non-agile units based on customer satisfaction, employee engagement and operational performance.

The trouble is, leaders might be the ones holding back agile gains. HR consultant Mercer says while 78% of employees say they are ready to reskill, executives believe only 45% of their workforce can adapt. Mercer calls this a “mental block”. It also thinks agility will dominate management discussions this year as companies look to rebound and reinvent.

A caring culture
Image: HR

3. Value your people

Businesses that have managed to ride out the COVID-19 storm need to ask themselves how they did it.

Sure, foresight and an agile mindset have been vital, but so has attending to the asset on which organizations are built – their people. Without them, nothing else is possible. Whether home-workers juggling childcare and Zoom calls, delivery drivers taking on extra shifts or nurses going to hospital despite the risks, people everywhere have stepped up.

Experts put this in different ways. UN Assistant Secretary-General Kanni Wignaraja calls on leaders to recognize that the pandemic means “everyone is having their own ups and downs”. British health think tank the King’s Fund urges compassionate leadership and says this means “paying attention to all staff, truly listening to them and being present with them.”

The best leaders have already been doing this, often using digital technology to improve communication. Chief Executive magazine advocates “weekly CEO webinars, daily team huddles, skip level calls and virtual happy hours” to create “people first” organizations.

Trust is also central. Before the pandemic, research by Mercer found that many companies didn’t trust their employees to work from home. But going forward, the OECD suggests organizations look to establish trust-based relationships with staff, in order to realize the potential productivity gains of home-working. Trust could speed the recovery.

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