How transformational leadership is essential during Covid-19
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How transformational leadership is essential during Covid-19

How transformational leadership is essential during Covid-19

There are some key traits that transformational leaders need to put into practice


Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading around what leaders can expect in 2021, from McKinsey and BCG to Harvard Business Review and everything in between. It’s a no-brainer when you think about how 2021 is panning out for many parts of the world, Middle East included. Even though there is optimism about the future, the underlying uncertainty is a constant worry for business leaders.

2020, in the business context emerged as an epic test for the leaders across countries where they have had to cope with extraordinary demands. Because there’s nothing that would have prepared them for what is happening.

Quite disturbingly but perhaps not entirely surprisingly, traditional approaches to leadership development haven’t kept pace with the kinds of complexities we now face. Dede Henley, a leadership strategy coach and expert says that currently, fewer than 18 per cent of leaders have the qualities of mind to optimally lead in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments (Hall & Rowland, 2016). Clearly ‘transformation’ is the need of the hour.

But why should leaders choose to transform? Because any modern leadership journey must start with self-reflection? Leaders are finding themselves leading in a very different world, one for which they were not prepared for at all. Leaders need to see this as a rare opportunity to redefine their business-as-usual approaches, not tactically as many of them are doing but on a more sustained and strategic level. Leaders must now take a human-centered approach to making transformation happen, by creating a leadership system that compliments their organisations and cultures. Henley says that they need to transform to be always conscious and consistently inspired to do the right thing, which in turn, will enable leaders and organisations to create more equitable and productive workplaces that emphasise ‘change energy’ over ‘change fatigue’ and help to ignite the nascent leadership potential of employees at all levels.

So how will transformational leadership benefit organisations, employees, and society? I believe before setting out lofty business goals for themselves and their organisations, the first role of a transformational leader is empathy for the workforce. And the first step to bringing that to light is by fostering a work culture that eliminates stress and brings in a culture of “positive productivity.” Please note that I use the term “positive productivity” and not just “productivity.” Productivity is a standard fuel of a company’s competitive DNA. But positive productivity infuses a culture of empathy, collaboration, inclusiveness, and engagement that may sometimes be totally lacking.

There are some key traits that transformational leaders need to put into practice. First, they need to embrace empathy. Empathy is about equality, deep understanding, and reciprocity. For a transformational leader, it’s more than just seeing things from their unique perspective – it’s about personalising and embracing it and then working on it. Second, transformational leaders need to acknowledge both personal and enterprise change. Such leaders understand that there is no endpoint to change. Change is the only constant and is the fulcrum of collective and individual evolution.

The pandemic has brought with it a new normal – unanticipated opportunities and challenges to every stakeholder in the ecosystem. A new learning curve can be disconcerting, and employees can be resistant to change. This is where leaders across the value chain need to anticipate and mitigate resistance and help their teams embrace a new culture of learning. The empathetic way of doing this is to lead from the front to set an example by seeing the organisation comprising of a set of cohesive and collaborative people and not just an inanimate entity. Transformational leaders need to listen. This is perhaps the most difficult of all traits to imbibe but good leadership is about listening with empathy and without prejudice. As enough data shows, organisations that listen to employees are also the organisations that outperform their peers.

Finally, transformational leaders need to foster a culture of trust and safety. Such leaders will allow people across the value chain to feel free to voice their concerns and express their emotions with regards to change and upheaval. They will foster an ecosystem of truth and transparency that puts people at the centre of the ecosystem. They will not just understand both organisational and sectoral challenges better, but will also be able to harness the full support and drive of their teams to navigate through the change better.

Hanadi Khalife is a senior director for Middle East and India operations at IMA

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