Why COVID-19 Is Inspiring Empathetic and Quiet Leadership

Sometimes the greatest leaders are the ones we don't see or hear often.
Why COVID-19 Is Inspiring Empathetic and Quiet Leadership
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4 min read
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A return to normalcy.

Here we are, 100 years later, and Warren G. Harding’s 1920 election slogan seems more appropriate than ever. For the business world, "normal" isn’t in the vocabulary and may never be again.

For leaders of companies big and small, the test to remain steady and inspire hope is a daunting one. But quietly it can be done. 

Related: 10 Successful Leaders Share How They Developed the Resilience to Push Through the Most Challenging Times

Carrying water

Sam Walker, author of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, describes carrying water as those who "lead from the back." These types of individuals engage in practical, consistent communication and shun the spotlight. Leaders who carry water do thankless tasks in the shadows, and experts agree that small, simple acts of empathy are needed now, and could benefit business in the future.

“Empathy is being amplified during COVID-19,” said Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “A leader who can empathize with employees' personal situations will emerge from this stronger and better than before. And it will become clearer that a one-size-fits-all approach isn't a good leadership strategy.”

If you’ve watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 The Last Dance you’ll see former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson adapt to his players. Jackson couldn’t treat Dennis Rodman, a free-spirit, the same way he treated Michael Jordan, a disciplined overachiever. 

Jackson, in his own empathetic way, gave Rodman a longer leash, because he paid attention to the star rebounder as an individual. Jackson was ahead of his time in knowing a one-size-fits-all leadership strategy wasn’t a recipe for winning or building trust. 

Related: Learn the Art of Being an Effective Leader

Transactional vs. transformational leaders

In Walker’s book, the author cites another thought leader, James MacGregor Burns, and his 1978 book Leadership. Burns concluded there were two types of leadership -- transformational and transactional.

Transactional leadership is described as checking off boxes and making sure others are following orders. Transformational leaders are the exception to the rule.

“This crisis has called on many leadership skills, from communication to agility to strategic thinking. But in terms of what has permanently changed in how we evaluate people in charge, I hope it is how we prioritize their ability to empathize,” said Vinca LaFleur, managing partner at West Wing Writers.

LaFleur also points to someone who is knocking leadership out of the park. “We’re getting a real-time master class from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, whose winning blend of compassion with firmness, sensitivity with hard science, inspired her country to pull together to stamp out the virus’s spread. Let’s hope that current leaders, would-be leaders, and stakeholders everywhere are taking notes.”  

Culture eats strategy, and character beats charisma

The leaders in The Captain Class came from all walks of life and played all different types of sports. Just about all of them led without fanfare and inspired their teammates without rah-rah speeches. 

Charisma has its place in the business world, but the "extrovert ideal," as Susan Cain points out, may not be quite so ideal now, or in the future.

“I've been working with a lot of leaders who are interested in helping their teams right now,” Morin said. “They want their employees to feel mentally strong, despite the ongoing uncertainty. But the really good leaders say, 'I don't want to help my people be more productive. I want to help them feel their best.'"

Related: Leading Through a Pandemic -- and the Road Ahead

So, in taking stock in your own company, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I carrying water for my employees?
  2. Am I leading in a transactional or transformational way?
  3. Am I doing all I can to help my people feel their best right now?

It’s a great time to be a leader. Even one who isn't noticed.

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