Four Lessons for a Radical Rethink of Leadership in the Post-COVID Era

Brussels, Belgium - High school and university students stage a protest against the climate policies of the Belgian government (Feb. 21, 2019. Credit: Alexandros Michailidis).

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership has been put to the test. It is increasingly clear that to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient requires rethinking what it means to lead and prioritizing purpose, trust, empathy and inclusivity.

During the recent 2020 Young Global Leaders (YGL) Annual Summit, leaders in government and business shared their views about responsible leadership during a global crisis. Here are four main takeaways.

A strong sense of purpose enables adaptability.

After seven years of preparations across three different time zones, the UAE’s Mars mission, Misbar Al Amal, launched this past July with the aim to collect and share novel data with the global scientific community despite the COVID-19 lockdown and other disruptions. Had the UAE missed the July launch date, it could not have launched the mission until 2022.

Sarah Al Amiri, the deputy project manager and science lead of the UAE’s Mars mission, explained that a strong and clear mission and purpose across all levels of the project enabled her team to execute a quick remobilization of the entire timeline, the testing plan and the project’s essential personnel during times of full lockdown.

Ask yourself: How can you create and share your vision for success with your team?

Involving more stakeholders boosts trust.

UK retailer Iceland Food has reduced its carbon emissions by 79% in the past nine years. Richard Walker, the company’s managing director, said he believes COVID-19 can be a constructive opportunity for the planet and people to “turbocharge the green recovery.” Despite the challenges of the pandemic, he aims to keep Iceland Food on track to achieve its goal of eliminating plastic packaging labels by 2023.

A critical driver to his aggressive sustainability goals and his confidence in the ability to fulfil them is stakeholder inclusion, which involves a business priority shift to do the right thing for all stakeholders. “Those who have protected their employees and their value chains were the most resilient during the pandemic,” Richard explains.

For Maria Soledad Nuñez Mendez, former Minister of Housing and Habitat of Paraguay, stakeholder inclusion means involving the public in policy. In the face of rising populism and the lack of trust in institutions, citizen participation is a key mechanism to rebuilding trust in government and promoting evidence-based policymaking, she argued.

Ask yourself: How can you consider and involve diverse stakeholders when making decisions?

There’s power in empathy and compassion. 

In addition to mounting physical health and economic costs, COVID-19 has also caused physiological effects. Months before COVID-19 hit, WHO estimated the economic impact of depression and anxiety on the global economy at US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity, a number that has likely climbed in the months since the pandemic spread.

For Rana El Kaliouby, the co-founder and CEO of AI company Affectivia, the physiological, emotional and mental health challenges of COVID-19 present an opportunity to “recalibrate empathy.” She called on leaders in the tech sector, particularly the AI industry, to step up to a new level of moral and ethical responsibility to address questions of development and deployment of AI solutions to make day-to-day interfaces more effective while addressing mental health challenges. “The only way to do that is by rediscovering and recalibrating our human connection,” she said.

Kabir Sehgal, similarly, has recognized the power of emotion and intuition in addressing political and social polarization. In the spring of 2018, Kabir brought 100 musicians to the US-Mexican border wall to play music together to send a message of hope and love across geographic and political divides. Kabir looks at the news and then develops creative projects to foster unity and build bridges across nations and societies. The main message Kabir has for leaders is to recognize and leverage the power of creative tools, including music, to reach across social and political divides.

Ask yourself: How can you show compassion, humility and openness?

Leadership means no one is left behind.

Leaders must be “radically inclusive,” explained David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone. With declining economic growth in the Sub-Saharan African region facing the first recession in 25 years and COVID-19 restricting economic activity and education, he has searched for innovative ways to ensure everyone has access to opportunity.

Sengeh led Sierra Leon to join the Africa Growth Platform-Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative, which provides more than 3,800 courses and 400 specializations from Coursera’s university and industry partners. Acknowledging that many students do not have access to tech devices or internet, he also partnered with Orange Sierra Leone to make these courses more accessible to students, and streamed radio content for those without access to the internet.

Ask yourself: How can you innovate to ensure inclusivity?

There is something common among these leaders: the challenges that COVID-19 poses have only made them more innovative, and more determined in pursuit of achieving positive impact for their constituents, customers, and societies. As the world recovers from COVID-19, we will need this type of responsible leadership even more.

A version of this article was published on the World Economic Forum Agenda and in Forbes as part of the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit, October 20-23. 


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