The Strain Gets Worse

The first few days of the new year have felt nearly as bad as 2020’s worst moments. How leaders need to confront the first challenge of 2021.

It’s as if 2020 never ended.

Before the new year was just a few days old, news emerged of a considerably more infectious strain of COVID-19 making its way around the world, causing more lockdowns and overwhelming hospitals. The story dominated the news—along with reports of chaotic vaccine distributions and, of course, the unsettling protests and political drama in Washington, DC. Experts say all this has made it very difficult for leaders to launch the year the way they had hoped while finding new ways to motivate a tiring and anxious work staff. “The bigger concern for leaders is inspiring their teams to maintain of level of resilience,”  says Tierney Remick, vice-chair and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “Employee fatigue is real.”

So is fear. Health-wise, of course, the most disturbing news revolves around the new COVID strain, which has already caused a full lockdown in England, severely restricted some travel, and spread to dozens of countries and a handful of US states. Meanwhile, slow rollouts of vaccines will not only increase the pandemic's toll but also disrupt many careful corporate efforts to reopen offices. “All these issues happening this week certainly hasn’t helped matters,” says Seth Steinberg, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with supply chain professionals. 

None of the recent developments fit into the usual ways leaders in any area like to start the first week of the year—typically planning for the months ahead and giving company talks about growth plans and profits. Those conversations might seem awfully hollow right now. Indeed, communications leaders, for instance, may be rethinking their communication strategies for the year. “The things that are happening right now probably have leaders revisiting their communication calendars,” says Richard Marshall, a global managing director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise. “It’s a big challenge, setting the right tone and messaging for the moment.”

Experts say leaders may want to adopt parts of a so-called player-coach leadership style. In this approach, leaders 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,” says Lt. Gen. (ret) Bill Mayville, a Korn Ferry senior advisor who consults on leadership, technology, and cybersecurity issues.

In the meantime, however, experts say CEOs should assume the rest of the month probably won’t be any easier than Week One of 2021. The new COVID 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, Mayville 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. “You have to be very careful and not make promises that we can’t affect,” he says.