What 2020 Taught Us About Leadership

Hayley Panagakis

28 December 2020

Well, folks. It’s finally here: the end of 2020. What a year it has been for our world as we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the pandemic isn’t over, I don’t know anyone who isn’t thrilled to close the door on a year filled with so much loss, destruction, uncertainty and unrest. I know most of us want to forget 2020 ever happened, but it’s important we stop and think about the leadership lessons we learned, what we wish we’d done differently along the way, and how we can use the good and the bad from this year to be better in the future. As I reflect on the year gone by, I want to share three observations about what I believe 2020 taught us about leadership. 

It’s important leaders consistently assess what is and isn’t working in their businesses and adjust accordingly. Get creative.

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1. The Art of the Pivot

It has been a devastating year for so many industries—food service, events, hospitality and tourism, entertainment, you name it—and we’ve seen businesses do everything they can to survive for the long-term. This has meant layoffs and furloughs for many organizations, but it has also led to an incredible amount of pivots.

When COVID-19 caught the world by storm at the beginning of the year, many businesses put their creative hats on and asked themselves, “How can we use our resources to produce something we haven’t before?”

When my city was under shutdown, for example, breweries that closed their doors to customers switched from brewing craft beers to making hand sanitizer when we were at our shortest supply. Restaurants began offering curbside takeout and meal kits in addition to delivery and to-go services. Many events, including Leadercast’s, shifted from in-person gatherings to fully virtual, quickly adopting new technologies in the process. Car manufacturers like General Motors and Ford began producing critical-care ventilators. Clothing brands like Hanes and Gap began manufacturing medical gowns and face masks to be distributed to hospitals and healthcare facilities. Even Snap Lab, the hardware company known for creating the Spectacles video sunglasses used for Snapchat, did a 180 and began making medical face shields. 

Examples like these are found in every community around the globe, and from a leadership perspective, they are stories of incredible resilience that showcase the dire role creativity plays in our longevity. 

As we head into the new year, we may not see pivots on a mass scale as we did in 2020, but I do think businesses should remain pivot-minded. It’s important leaders consistently assess what is and isn’t working in their businesses and adjust accordingly. Get creative. Don’t continue to do something simply because it is how it has always been done. I guarantee you won’t outlast your competitors if you do so, nor will you discover untapped markets that pivots can open your eyes to. 

But that’s not to say any pivot or idea is worth pursuing. “Not all pivots result in good business performance,” says Mauro F. Guillén, professor at the Wharton School, in this Harvard Business Review article. He shares three conditions right for pivots that I think are worth noting as leaders explore new avenues for their businesses in 2021 and the years ahead.

A pivot must: 

  1. Align with long-term trends: Mauro says the trends for 2020 include “remote work, shorter supply chains, social distancing, consumer introspection and enhanced use of technology”—all of which are bound to continue in the new year and beyond. 
  2. Be an extension of your capabilities and support your strategic intent 
  3. Provide a path to profitability

2. The Need for Flexibility

If there’s one way COVID-19 has permanently disrupted the workplace, it’s the shift toward remote work. It’s a direction the modern workplace was already headed, but the pandemic gave many businesses the push they needed to truly implement it for their staff.

Employees need flexibility, and leaders shouldn’t be enlightened to this fact. Based on an HBR study conducted two years ago, 96 percent of U.S. workers want flexibility, but only 47 percent have the amount they need. 

Remote work provides employees more flexibility than they would otherwise have working full-time in an office. For example, time once spent commuting can be freed up for more time for family, exercise, sleep or hobbies. Employees can throw in a load of laundry or clean the kitchen over their lunch break, giving them more time in the evenings to spend as they please rather than tending to household duties when they get home. By providing employees the opportunity to work remotely, employee satisfaction and retention is bound to increase. It’s a win-win for both businesses and their team members.

As a working parent who started her own freelance business due to a need for more flexibility, I can’t stress enough why leaders should build it into their culture. But it does come with challenges (a few of which I covered earlier this year in a blog about building a remote team culture). There is a balance to it and if deadlines are consistently missed or goals aren’t being met, a leader should assess what an individual employee needs to operate at their best—maybe they perform best in an office setting, maybe they need a hybrid approach or maybe it’s something else entirely that needs addressing. 

3. The Prioritization of Mental Health

Coronavirus isn’t the only pandemic our world faced this year; add to it, loneliness, anxiety and depression. But it’s no secret that all of these illnesses have been an issue for some time now. According to a study conducted by Cigna in 2019, 61 percent of Americans felt lonely, which should concern leaders not only as they consider the personal well-being of their employees, but also from a business perspective. Loneliness can result in decreased productivity and work quality, increased missed days at work due to illness (twice as likely) and stress (five times as likely), and a higher risk of employee turnover. 

As for anxiety and depression, 11 percent of American adults battle with anxiety on a regular basis, and nearly 5 percent with depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A silver lining to this pandemic has been an increased awareness of mental health in the leadership space. Friends have shared with me how their bosses are checking in with them more often about how they are doing—not just as an employee but as a person. They’re asking about their families when they never have before. They’re offering grace and understanding when employees are having a hard or stressful time. They’re even changing organizational policies to provide resources for employees to get the help they need. (Take my husband’s employer, for example, which rolled out a program where team members could talk one-on-one with an online therapist to help them sort through their thoughts brought on by the pandemic and social isolation.)

Our influence as leaders runs deeper than we realize a lot of the time. Our actions can make a big difference in the mental wellness of those we lead. As we move past this year, I hope leaders continue to keep their employees’ mental health at the forefront of their minds. It can be easy to get lost in the thick of work and business and forget to check on people on a more personal level. Prioritize the mental wellness of others by building it into your schedule. As leadership communicator Andy Stanley shared at Leadercast 2020—Positive Disruption, people need to hear your voice. Pick up the phone and call a team member. Schedule a Zoom meeting. You may not be able to do it for everyone, but do what you can. “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone,” says Andy in his talk. “Call somebody even if you can’t call everybody.”

As you embrace the new year with what I imagine are arms as wide open as humanly possible, remember this: “We can do hard things.” You’ve heard this before, I’m sure. It’s a mantra a friend reminded me of earlier this year and it’s been a repeated affirmation for me ever since. No matter what this year has dealt you or what’s to come in the new year, you can do hard things. Reflect on this year and what it’s taught you. Write it down. Remember the ways in which you were resilient, creative, adaptive, empathetic and more, and let it inform, or even transform, your leadership for the years ahead. 

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What did 2020 teach you about leadership? Tell us on Twitter using #Leadercast

Hayley Panagakis

This blog was written by Hayley Panagakis, a freelance writer, editor and content creator. Connect with her on LinkedIn and visit her website to learn more about her services.

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