The Leadership Opportunity

In times of crisis and uncertainty, organisations look to their leaders even more than usual to provide solidity, confidence and clarity.

Leaders, of course, are themselves under immense pressure as markets follow waves of upheaval. They, too, are human and subject to a full spectrum of emotion that includes fear and anxiety.

Yet, they need to continue making good decisions that instil trust. Not easy, but the abilities required to operate this way are within reach.

The challenge

The foreseeable business landscape looks set to test the capability and capacity of all organisations worldwide, as more employees look to find the new balance of remote, hybrid and office-based working. This will impact almost all business functions with HR and L&D under pressure to provide a flexible blend of support, guidance and empowerment.

For all leaders, this will not be solely about maintaining operational outcomes; business leaders also have a responsibility to their employees.

HR and business leads need to be particularly aware of the need to balance their obligations to protect the health and safety of their staff with the operational requirements of the organisation to which they are accountable.

Effective leadership through crises requires strong managerial capability, but it also requires softer skills that underlie sustained performance and a problem-solving mindset.

Two-way feedback, motivation and communication

Employees more than ever, need their leaders to stay calm and engage with their fears and worries. Leaders must create ‘psychological safety’ because when people are frightened, they are unable to think creatively about solving problems. Instead, they can only think about self-preservation.

More so, with such an abundance of information available in the public sphere, there’s a higher risk of incorrect facts causing fear and panic. By stepping up communication updates, organisations can alleviate these anxieties quickly. However, this should not be a one-way channel but rather a dialogue.

Employees need to feel safe to express their concerns and feel heard. Good leaders will need to consider their language and positioning about the outbreak. They will need to give their employees the permission to openly discuss their concerns and feel safe to fail, and safe in the knowledge that the business as a whole has the confidence in their abilities to weather this storm and make it through unchartered waters to a new and better place.

Thrive in ambiguity

One of the most immediate and widespread transformations has been the dissolution of conventional work arrangements in favour of staff working from home, and now we enter into the stage of looking for what the optimal solutions might be.

Remote working was hardly a new concept. However, many businesses interpret presenteeism as an indication of productivity and motivation. So they looked away from instilling virtual working models into their companies. Having then come through enforced changes, the challenge is now how to deal with having more options.

Even the biggest Silicon Valley tech companies were in meltdown at the prospect of teams having to initially work from home despite the fact that the technology to enable ultra-productive and scalable remote working had existed for years. Now it is about finding the right balance and optimal use of that technology when the “one-size-fits-all” is no longer applicable or mandated.

Senior leadership needed to develop their trust levels with their employees when remote working was enforced. They now need to take those levels of trust even further as personal options, choices and preferences come into play.

In reality, the change to home-working involved a shift in perspective rather than working practice itself. The evolution into flexible or hybrid solutions may yet prove to be far more complex.

Senior leadership needs to continue to develop their trust levels with their employees, believing that they do not need to physically see them and check in with them on their progress as frequently as previously possible. This will cease to be just a situational, enforced or reluctant trust that is driven by necessity, but a more informal, genuine and authentic form of trust that demonstrates willingness, empowerment and collaboration.

Willingness to work with and through others

Regardless of their own internal experience, leaders need to be able to embody the confidence that permits those around them to feel calm and present. This confidence often needs to originate somewhere deeper than self-esteem.

A leader who identifies as being part of something bigger than themselves feel less personally threatened by crises. It is then that leaders are able to tap into the parts of themselves that inspire others.

Control, confidence and connections as the 3C’s that underpin motivation and business leaders can maintain focus by “taking control of attitude, self-care, preparation and ensuring they’ve got lots of mini successes to focus on delivering, one day at a time.”

To boost confidence, introducing regular conversations that are designed to reinforce all of the core strengths that everyone possesses will be highly valuable in delivering success each day. This focus of building on strengths rather than pointing out all the gaps is the key starting position for successful leaders.

Lastly, to foster a sense of togetherness, something that’s easily lost when some or all team members are working remotely, managers should still set up calls, and use virtual technology to stay updated wherever possible to retain connection and relevance. If doing one and two calls in virtual groups, this will help enormously with maintaining a sense of connectedness and bringing everyone together as a united team.

Imparting a clear vision of change

It’s human nature to feel fear in times of uncertainty. It’s the brain’s default programme to keep us safe.  However, anxiety and negativity can quickly spiral, particularly when emotions are high, having a detrimental effect on decision-making, morale and wellbeing in the workplace.

Employees look to business leaders to create a message of positivity.

To deliver this, businesses need “a clear plan of action and strategy, with a supportive, positive narrative and message.

Identifying champions and influential people within the company who can help spread the critical messages with passion and vigour will be key for any leader looking to influence and maintain a positive environment. Those people in the organisation who are respected and appreciated by their peers can support the organisation to establish a positive, mental attitude.

Tenacity to excel and challenge

Whatever shape the new working paradigm takes, skills—both hard and soft—will become even more critical. However, many business functions, including learning and development, will continue to rely on face-to-face interactions for a number of key strategies and interventions.

However, this shouldn’t act as a barrier to professional development. Instead, ongoing advancements in learning technology and changing learning models mean there are more opportunities to deliver virtual and remote learning models. The challenge will be about designing and delivering the optimal hybrid solutions and experiences that can be most accessible, efficient, sustainable, democratic and ultimately impactful for employees and the organisation.

It is now essential for Employees to have access to a modern learning platform that can be accessed anywhere—one that allows instructional videos, assignments and feedback to be shared remotely so that learning journeys can be continued at home or wherever required. The use of digital applications is already enabling agile and remote learning as the workforce moves away from the office environment to adapt to specific needs.

By embracing an agile, self-development approach, businesses can continue to help their employees build on their leadership development by encouraging them to take up online modular courses. These provide quick iterative feedback – a core tenant of agile – and encourage employees to take control of their own career development, focusing on developing aspects of their career which are important to them.


Recent times have presented organisations, and in particular HR, with a range of unique challenges. Understandably the prospect of dealing with so many unknown factors was at times unsettling and concerning. However, even in those times of adversity, there was also the opportunity to learn.

It did not always feel that way, though.

Learning and Development leaders have faced two major challenges: Their live events were cancelled, and the general sense that this is not the time for professional development, because the focus needed to be on other factors in the business. This is a sense that will remain as we navigate through an uncertain and unchartered landscape.

However, this may be the most vital time to commit to developing leaders, not the least.

Businesses who take the view that there are more important things to worry about than learning and development may be sabotaging their ability to respond optimally to major events, opportunities or challenges.

The quote, “Cancelling training is like cancelling morale” will be more acutely recognised and look to redefine our Employee expectations and relationships. Indeed, many Employees view the availability of professional development as a clear sign of a healthy organisation, and employees who believe that their organisation is strong and healthy are more able to commit to, and to deliver their best.

This is never truer than at a leadership level, where the halo of individual influence is greater than in other pockets of the business. Going through a period of rebuilding, redefining, reskilling and reshaping may be the most vital time to commit to developing leaders, not the least.

By remaining agile and responsive to changing conditions, and by supporting and empowering Employees to take ownership of their personal growth through self-development, organisations can convert impactful leadership development into an asset that helps transform uncertainty into opportunity.

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