The Leadership Strain of the New COVID Strain

More lockdowns. More fatigue. How leaders need to confront the last challenge of 2020.

The hope didn’t last very long.

A new, considerably more infectious strain of COVID-19 has spread throughout England and other parts of Europe, leading to a near lockdown of London and travel bans to the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, vaccine shipments have been delayed, many parts of the United States are running out of hospital beds to treat a massive influx of new cases, and several thousand people are dying from the virus each day.

It’s perhaps the final leadership challenge of 2020: urging employees to stay safe and (if they are working) productive during a holiday season when everyone is frustrated, exhausted, and desperate for a return to normalcy that is likely still months away. Experts say it’s a challenge where only a few types of leadership styles and techniques will work. “I think there are some people who are tired of hearing the platitudes from leadership,” says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources.

The situation is reminiscent of a military deployment, says Lt. Gen. (ret) Bill Mayville, a Korn Ferry senior advisor who consults on leadership, technology, and cybersecurity issues. The pandemic thrust ordinary people into an eerily familiar but still strange environment. Now, after months of ups and downs, many people are questioning their own personal security and have lost confidence in themselves and their organizations.

Experts say leaders may want to adopt parts of the so-called player-coach leadership style. Normally, these are leaders who not only perform as individual contributors but also manage other people. The best of these leaders let their actions—being innovative and productive—do much of the talking. “Get down on that path, roll up your sleeves, and do it as well,” Mayville says.

Player-coaches still make time to offer advice and guidance to their direct reports, allowing them to be collaborative and innovative themselves. These leaders can create what’s called the squad effect, a sense among employees that they belong to something big, where they are all important, and that they are all winning. “It makes teams impervious to an environment,” Mayville says.

Most senior executives may not be in a position to make individual sales calls or redesign software code, but experts say they can lead by example. At this point in the pandemic, it’s pretty clear what will lower the odds of getting or spreading COVID-19: staying socially distant, avoiding large gatherings, and wearing masks. Leaders should be up-front about their own anxieties, tell people they are following the public health guidelines, and hold themselves accountable. This has to be genuine, experts say; too many leaders have been caught saying one thing and doing another. “If it’s authentic, yes. If it’s not, don’t bother,” says Mary Elizabeth Sadd, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with many packaging manufacturing companies.

For now, the new strain has left many scientists confused, and experts say that will only create a new level of ambiguity for leaders to confront. Firms that were encouraging limited business travel may want to pull back, for example, as well as reaffirm safety protocols at offices that have reopened. For his part, Manville says it’s probably also best not to tell employees that the end is in sight. Even with the vaccine, more delays and the spike in cases could continue, he says. “You have to be very careful and not make promises that we can’t affect,” Mayville says.