COVID-19 has radically changed the way we work and undoubtedly, the way we lead.

At the pandemic unfurled approximately 10 weeks ago, leaders were called to perform in unprecedented, unfamiliar ways.  They had to act quickly and decisively to ensure productivity, address and manage employee anxieties, and far too many leaders had to have difficult conversations about employee furloughs and unpredictable futures.

We count on our leaders for guidance, answers, and security. The pandemic has created a situation within which many leaders struggle to serve as a trusted guide as they are uncertain of the path ahead. Many of our leaders have had to say “I don’t know” more than they’d like in response to their employees' questions. The inability to provide a sense of security must be terribly frustrating. In addition to all of this, many leaders find themselves in the process of radically re-imagining the future of their organizations.

Several months in, the pressure on leaders and managers remains immense. I have been thinking a great deal about those who lead and how to provide support, in hopes that they might come to find some solace, strength, and optimism as they blaze the trail ahead.

Trust me, leadership will never look the same going forward.

We can no longer lean into our old ways of motivating, inspiring, and ensuring high levels of excellence in productivity. That said, leaders have a tremendous opportunity to intentionally create a leadership style that is attuned to the very unique needs of our current work force. Tending to, prioritizing and fostering solid relationships with those we lead will become the essential hallmark of current and post-pandemic leadership. I invite all leaders to consider themselves trailblazers on the path forward.

So where do we begin?

If you are leader — I invite you to L E A D.

Recently, while mapping out a webinar that addressed the new face of leadership, I found myself writing the letters L E A D vertically along the margin of an empty sheet of paper.

I then asked myself: what does leadership excellence look like during a global pandemic? What qualities does each letter potentially represent when we contemplate leadership through and beyond a pandemic?

Here is what emerged. I hope that this acronym is helpful to you.

L: listen

E: engage

A: act

D: dedicate

Listen and Engage

Nicole [all names have been changed in the interest of privacy] works for a small salon business that has been shut down for the last ten weeks with little indication of opening soon. Furloughed indefinitely, her customers are frantic for services, and she is tasked with caring for her chronically-ill husband and home-schooling their two young children.

She knows that her leaders at the salon are frantic about the future of the business, but there has been very little communication between leadership and employees. Nicole wants to know what safety measures will be in place once the salon re-opens. She cannot risk bringing the virus home and her immune-compromised husband getting ill. She worries about childcare should schools remain closed as she returns to work.  She worries about her family’s finances. Will safety precautions taken in the salon impact how many clients she can see? How will this impact her pay? Nicole tosses and turns all night with these worries and longs for an opportunity to voice her concerns to leadership. But how? And when? Perhaps her leaders don’t have all of the answers, but Nicole feels that simply being “heard” might assuage her concerns.

Nicole is not alone. Our staff, teams, and employees each have concerns about the current and future state of their work and would benefit greatly from opportunities to be both heard and engaged.

I am not suggesting that leaders spend long periods of time with each employee to hear about their individual concerns. However, I am encouraging leaders to create an opportunity for regular dialogue about employee worries. This effort will go a long way in ensuring that those returning to work will do so with a new level of trust in their leaders.

I invite leaders to initiate a weekly or bi-weekly huddle within which employees can gather to voice their concerns, ask questions, and have honest dialogue about their fears. I moderated one such “huddle” a few weeks ago. When the tone is set properly, it is amazing what people will reveal about their own anxieties and challenges and how beautifully others will offer up ideas, solutions, or better — sheer empathy.

To hold space for listening and engagement, leaders must set the stage. The most effective way that leaders can generate this sort of dialogue is to begin these huddles by sharing a few of their own anxieties and struggles. There are two qualities that are going to be essential to excellence in leadership moving forward: humility and authenticity. As such, it is important that leaders are willing to show up in ways that reveal both of these qualities.

For example, in a recent huddle, Thom, a senior leader in his organization, initiated dialogue with his team by sharing that the day before would have been his son’s high school graduation. Thom shared that his feelings about the cancellation of the graduation caught him off-guard as a wellspring of memories of his son’s academic path overwhelmed him. Fairly task-oriented and process-minded, Thom’s team was both surprised and moved by Thom’s disclosure. This small gesture of humility: “I am suffering, too,” paired with Thom’s willingness to be vulnerable, allowed his team to see an authenticity in Thom that they had never experienced before. This brief, yet compelling disclosure set the stage for a powerful dialogue amongst the members of Thom’s team that will have lasting implications.

Thom modeled what he hoped to achieve — an hour of deep listening and personal engagement. It is important to note that although this huddle did not address work, it undoubtedly improved work. When we feel heard, engaged and cared for, we are more deeply inspired to give our best efforts to our work.

In the next part of this series, I will address the “A” and “D” of the LEAD acronym. For now, I invite you to think about the “L” and the “E.”

Ask yourself:

How can I as a leader attend to the unique needs of my staff, team, and employees by creating a regular forum within which they feel heard and engaged?

As a leader, am I willing to make myself vulnerable in ways that inspire my team to share those things that keep them up at night?

What measures do I need to take to ensure that I am fully present during such huddles so members of my team “feel” heard?

It is important to know that, absent leaders expressing authenticity, vulnerability and humility, employees will not feel that they can trust that their leaders will hold their concerns with care.

When we are heard, we feel seen. We feel that the needs and the concerns unique to us are taken seriously. We feel acknowledged. When our leaders actively listen to and engage us in ways that extend beyond the work we do, we feel significant and we feel safe.

Here is one important reminder as you move forward in your leadership during this challenging time: what we need as human beings now, more than anything else, is to feel safe and to feel connected.

If you can lead in ways that result in your team feeling safe and connected through and beyond COVID-19, then you are well on your way to embodying the new face of leadership.

Dr. Christine E. Kiesinger is Vice President of Development and Lead Trainer of Emotional Intelligence and Conscious Communication for studio BE.

Feature photo via nappy.co