2020 was a year characterized by chaos, crisis and uncertainty. Corporate leaders were faced with innumerable business challenges -- economic downturn, the transition to remote work, pivoting business models, industry collapse. All of this, while juggling existential threats to self, loved ones, employees, and society as we know it.
The pandemic will be a moment people write about in history. How politicians and corporate executives chose to respond to the challenges of this past year will be judged as testament to their leadership ability, and in some cases, their personal integrity. Did they prioritize the safety of their employees? Did they show compassion to those struggling? Did they embrace innovative solutions to address the issues of the time?
As we embark on a new year, we have compiled a list of leadership skills that have proved essential in 2020. We have chosen to highlight these 5 skills as they will continue to hold weight long after the pandemic is behind us.
Organizational and business agility proved paramount this year. Fashion brands became PPE suppliers, restaurants became online grocery stores, fitness studios became streaming companies, hotels became temporary shelters. Some companies seized on new opportunities, other companies were forced to transform as a means of survival. In each case, leaders had to be agile - willing to take a chance and innovate in a period of uncertainty.
1 trillion in costs are predicted to arise from inaction on climate change for top 500 earning companies. 50% of the world economy will be affected by current automation technologies. Business as usual is no longer a viable option. We knew this before the pandemic, but now, more than ever, we understand the value in agility. Leaders must have the humility and flexibility to adapt, and be open to new ideas and ways of working. They must foster a culture of learning and openness among their teams, and balance the need for innovation with the pressure for execution. To be a sustainable and resilient leader is to be an agile leader.
In the US, the George Floyd protests and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement created a moment of reckoning for leaders across all sectors, be it government, business or education. Silence and inaction from leadership was in itself a statement of complicity in the history and ongoing legacy of systemic racism.
Leaders were asked by customers and employees to examine their policies and actions, their values and workplace culture, and the diversity of their teams. Many leaders took a stand through public statements of solidarity, through commitments to education, training, and more equitable hiring strategies, and through financial contributions to BLM causes and black-owned businesses. Other leaders retreated from their positions entirely.
The real test of authentic, inclusive leadership will be revealed by those who stay true to their word, and remain accountable allies in the quest for social and economic equality. Leaders who reaffirm their commitment to racial equality, even once the media buzz has dissipated.
Courage is a leadership quality we have frequently written about thanks to the training and public speeches by Boma co-founder, Kaila Colbin. In times of fear and uncertainty, people turn to leaders for hope, inspiration, and a way forward. 2020 was certainly a year that required courage from our leaders.
Leaders showed their courage by initiating the difficult conversations, and by making the difficult decisions. By having the willpower to lead through uncertain times, by pioneering unproven strategies, and by taking a public stance on polarizing issues. True leadership this past year required risk, resolve and incurred huge responsibility. Courage became synonymous with leadership.
The top-down, prescriptive model of leadership no longer serves the purpose of our contemporary challenges. 2020 was unchartered territory - there was no playbook for how to navigate it successfully while minimizing risk. To be vulnerable is to be exposed to some risk. Many people conflate vulnerability with weakness or insecurity but on the contrary, vulnerability is a key ingredient to strength and courage. In fact, as Brené Brown teaches us, you cannot have courage without vulnerability for if there was no risk to conquer, there would be no expression of courage.
This year has exposed and often amplified our existing vulnerabilities. To be open and expressing one’s vulnerability creates the space for dialogue and connection. People and teams appreciate an authentic and compassionate leader. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s received the highest approval ratings of her political career following her decisive, yet empathetic response to lockdown. A true sign of leadership is the understanding that people are experiencing hardship, and the willingness to listen, to share, and to act in response.
According to a KPMG survey, 79 percent of CEOs have had to re-evaluate their purpose as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has shown us that corporate purpose can no longer be evaluated purely in economic terms. Business leaders must look beyond shareholder value, to consider the needs of broader stakeholders. The needs of their customers, their community, their employees, their suppliers, and the planet.
There have been many examples of purposeful leadership in a trying year from CEOs forfeiting their paychecks for the benefit of their employees and company, to video conferencing company Zoom giving their product away for free to K-12 schools. In the coming year, we expect more, not less, scrutiny over the values and intentionality of leaders, and the mission and purpose of businesses.
In many ways 2020 has been a year of learning. It has commanded our attention to consider new ways of working, new ways of living, new priorities and values in our professional and personal lives. It has given us the time to gain new hard skills, the appreciation to work on our soft skills, and the opportunity to experiment and innovate in uncertain conditions.
Leaders are at a pivotal moment. COVID has exposed how we are more connected than we ever imagined and more vulnerable than we ever thought. Technology is replacing human judgement. Climate change is no longer a scientific concept, but an existential threat. Courageous leaders will learn from this moment, they will put humanity at the center of all they do and prioritize building compassionate, multi-stakeholder organizations for a more sustainable world.
Let us turn to the new year remembering and applying the leadership lessons we’ve learned in 2020. And, let us pledge to continue to be open to learning new lessons in 2021 to make this the year of courageous leadership, where we will build new, sustainable, inclusive systems to drive humanity forward.
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