The year 2020 is turning out to be a boots-on-the-ground lesson in leadership development. No person or industry has been spared the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.


We are living through history in the making, and we’re all writing the playbook as we go along.

People need the best qualities of their leaders at all times, but they need them now more than ever. As I discuss in my book The Intelligent Leader, the core competencies of Intelligent Leadership hold across industries and through time.

Gallup studied data from major crises over the last century, including the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II, the assassination of President Kennedy, 9/11, and the 2008 recession to learn what effective leadership looks like during difficult times. They found that what people need most from their leaders during crises are trust, compassion, stability, and hope.


There can be no effective leadership without mutual trust. And in a world where people can’t trust that they will wake up healthy tomorrow, it’s critical that they be able to trust other things: their families, friends, colleagues, and work leaders. A sense of trust can help people push forward when they are overwhelmed with frightening information and distracted by a world that suddenly feels unfamiliar. Intelligent Leadership demonstrates trust by trusting employees and by ensuring employees’ trust in them is not misplaced.


The need for human-to-human compassion right now is tremendous. This is not to say that a normally more buttoned-up leader has to change and become touchy-feely. Compassion manifests in almost countless ways, from simply reaching out and asking how people are to saying encouraging words to offering practical help. Listening is another incredibly important act of compassion (and leadership). Even leaders who may feel overwhelmed by business and economic decisions must make a deliberate effort to demonstrate compassion while the pandemic continues.


Simply checking in and asking people how they are can be a powerful way to express compassion.


Stability is a state of not being prone to wild fluctuations. Stable buildings stand up to harsh weather, and stable computer codes don’t crash when fed the wrong data. Of course, not everything is stable right now, so people seek it out in multiple places, including in their professional lives. When you as a leader show stability in a challenging environment, you set the example that people need. It doesn’t mean that nothing changes, because change is unavoidable. It does mean that you are doing your best to keep things on an even keel during a time of rapid and unpredictable changes.


Let’s be honest: you may not always feel hopeful. As a leader, however, your leadership can provide hope to people who may wonder if things will ever feel normal again. Communicating hopefulness will be especially hard if you have to downsize your team, but in those situations, demonstrating authenticity, vulnerability, and emotion shows that you care not only about the corporate bottom line, but also about the people who have made it possible. There may be days when you feel you have to “fake it till you make it” in terms of hope. But anything you do to help your team members remain hopeful makes the present and the future less threatening.

It is easier to be a leader when things are going well. But the real leaders emerge when times are tough. Know what your team is going through during COVID-19 and show them regularly that you empathize and have compassion, and you will help your team come through the crisis stronger than before. If you’re interested in learning more about leadership development and Intelligent Leadership, I encourage you to check out my books. 


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