Business guide to Coronavirus

Leadership skills and recovering from COVID-19

Leadership has evolved through time but what happens to leadership in a time of crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic and beyond?

Will Felps, an Associate Professor in the school of management at the University of New South Wales Business School, talks about leadership in Australia before COVID-19, crisis leadership skills and the style of leadership needed for recovery.

Australian leaders

Will describes Australian leaders pre COVID-19 as charismatic, team-oriented, participative, honest and direct. Comparative to the rest of the world, Australian leaders are humane and generous with standards that aren’t overwhelming, said Will.

How does leadership change in a crisis? 

“During a crisis, you can’t have a whole lot of flex, it becomes different in the way you do participation”, says Will. For example: “maybe, you do a quick online survey, where you get people’s opinions, the leaders talk to a few people and act? There’s no time for elaborate consultation." 

“Suspend bureaucracy to act more quickly. Sometimes you need to act and respond, take a small action, see how it goes, see what the effects of it are, then adapt and change. It moves from a model where people are communicating on big plans on an infrequent basis to very frequently about small acts," Will adds. 

“Overcommunicating becomes really important in a crisis and that includes communicating, not only about decisions that have been made but also what’s being considered, what’s being weighed, and when decisions will be made.

"You also have to explain and justify your actions when you are communicating, to demonstrate how your actions are justified by your underlying values, and commitment to the parties involved and to do that on a regular basis. Some people are communicating on a weekly or multiple basis, sending email messages from the top leader and management as well.” 

Will says empathy is also important. “When people are feeling pain, to acknowledge that you understand and appreciate that and also where you make sense of the situation, when you summarise reality, so here’s what’s going on and here’s how we’re thinking of how to respond to it.” 

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Key skills a leader will need to be successful in the future

“We’re moving more out of the crisis to a more adaptive phase,” said Will. 

“You can’t rely on hallway conversations anymore, so you have to add more structure. It becomes increasingly important that you have a weekly 1:1 with all the members of your staff because you’re not going to run into someone, no opportunity for spontaneous conversation.”

With remote working, Will says, setting clear goals, status updates and more coaching is especially valuable. 

More broadly, as we move out of crisis leadership: “the environment is becoming more confusing and you can’t rely on bureaucratic procedures.”

Will says, to be successful, in an adaptive leadership model, more discussion and collaboration across groups is required. It’s important for businesses to run lots of experiments and let people try new ways of working or interacting with customers and services, to see what works or not and be able to scale up, given there’s been so much change and will likely to continue. 

Adaptive leadership

Will says a leader can’t adapt and cope if they’re burned out, overwhelmed and exhausted. It’s important for leaders to show up as their best selves by:

  • getting enough sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • eating healthy foods
  • checking in on their own mental health
  • being psychologically present
  • maintaining quality relationships with other people at work.

Also, having a “learning orientation, where you’re constantly asking yourself what am I learning from this experience”, versus a “performance orientation, where you’re judging yourself on how well you’re performing." 

"This model is often helpful for adaptive leadership, it’s a mindset shift,” said Will.

The coronavirus pandemic is marathon not a sprint, “until there’s a vaccine, maybe a year from now, I wouldn’t expect things to return to normal.”

Siobhann Provost

Senior Writer, My Business

Siobhann has over 18 years human resources business partnering experience in large organisations. She more recently established and led a people advice team of senior workplace advisors before moving into content writing.

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