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What is the nature of leadership?

The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to demonstrate leadership


May 5, 2020
By Brian Kreissl

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Photo: Getty Images

The current COVID-19 crisis has me thinking quite a bit about the whole concept of leadership and what it really means. Individuals and organizations that demonstrate true leadership throughout this crisis are able to build on and enhance the sense of camaraderie, shared values and cultural affiliation among employees while building and enhancing employee commitment and engagement.

How leaders and organizations manage through a crisis says a lot about their approach to leadership and what they believe is truly important. Leaders have a chance to really shine at times like these, and they have a unique opportunity to signal a commitment to their workforces and companies by demonstrating behaviours that highlight the organization’s core values and the principles of effective leadership.

People are afraid right now.

They are justifiably worried about their job security, livelihoods, ability to make ends meet and the economy in general.

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Folks are also worried about their own health and safety and the health of their loved ones. Many people’s mental health isn’t that great right now, and they may feel isolated, bored, worried about the future and a lack of concentration.

There is no question that productivity isn’t exactly very high for many people at the moment, and smart employers recognize this fact. Business leaders should avoid trying to get blood out of a stone during this crisis (although there have been some reports that people working from home right now may actually be working longer hours than normal).

Managers and leaders need to understand productivity isn’t going to improve in many cases until after this crisis is over. Nevertheless, they have an opportunity to build employee retention, engagement and loyalty, while also reinforcing and enhancing the organization’s employer brand.

Above all, I believe leaders need to demonstrate empathy, but it has to be genuine and sincere. Employees are more loyal to leaders who care about them as human beings and take an interest in their wellbeing and what makes them tick as individuals.

Servant leadership

One of the most important and interesting models of leadership relates to servant leadership, where leaders take the perspective that their role is primarily about serving their followers and ensuring they are empowered and equipped to do their jobs. According to the literature, servant leaders are empathetic, authentic, selfless, humble, collaborative and self-aware. They tend to act with integrity and take more of a coaching approach to leadership.

This can be contrasted with traditional models of leadership that view leaders as all-knowing, heroic superhumans who have all the right answers and can singlehandedly steer an organization in the right direction. The truth is even a CEO cannot do it alone, and leadership isn’t usually vested in one person.

Management versus leadership

One of the most appealing distinctions between management and leadership is that a true leader can come from anywhere in the organization and does not necessarily need to be in a position of formal authority within the organizational hierarchy.

While management and leadership have a great deal of overlap, they aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Management, which focuses on planning, supervising, organizing, directing and controlling, is more of an administrative function, while leadership is about inspiring others. Leadership, according to CEO of LeadX Kevin Kruse, is a “process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards a goal.”

I like this definition because it refers to the fact that leadership requires influence and inspiration. It isn’t about coercion or control, but rather the fact that a true leader is able to develop a vision and inspire others towards the attainment of that vision.

That’s not to say we don’t need managers. Management is an important skill, and organizations still need competent people to handle the administrative activities associated with managing people.

Not everyone is qualified to inspire greatness in others, and we still need people to handle the day-to-day tasks involved in management, but I still believe leadership skills are important not only for formal leaders, but also for people in many different types of positions.

The role of the HR function

HR can help by becoming the centre of expertise for leadership. Leadership development programs, policies and frameworks relating to recruitment and selection, performance management, learning and development and total rewards management can help managers become better leaders.

HR can also help by driving the type of cultural change needed to support true leadership – particularly models like servant leadership that turn traditional leadership models upside down.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886. For more information, visit https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/en-ca/home.