Purpose driven leadership - identifying impactful leaders during Covid-19

Covid-19 presented unprecedented challenges for organisations and institutions.  Leaders from businesses, unions and governments alike needed to take control and demonstrate decisive but informed leadership.

However, as the pandemic progressed, leadership was often conspicuously lacking, with decisions being slow to emerge. Perhaps most obviously, at a national level in UK with the slow and ineffective response to a lack of PPE for frontline health workers and mixed messages regarding lockdown rules.

A new essay, ‘Unleadership’ by Carol Jarvis, Hugo Gaggiotti and Selen Kar-Unluoglu celebrates leadership behaviours that emerged from unexpected places during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Covid-19 is described as a ‘state of exception’, where leaders find themselves in unexpected circumstances.

Drawing on diverse case studies, the essay compares examples of strong, formal leaders who took time to react and show true effective leadership, with companies, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals who adopted the mantle of leadership, upskilling themselves intellectually and emotionally. 

Across the globe, individuals made thoughtful, proactive gestures. In the UK, Captain Tom epitomised this – he didn’t set out to change perceptions and he didn’t have a clear vision, but importantly he did have a clear purpose.  Similarly, school children with their 3D printers, small independent businesses and international clothing brands such as Burberry and Barbour, undertook acts of leadership, collaborating rather than competing, and bringing people on board to support where needed.  All of these organisations and individuals acted unbidden and spontaneously, taking on the role of leaders when doing so was needed. 

These individuals demonstrated that leadership is not just a job title, position or status, it is a mind set and skills set that enables you to work successfully with and through other people.  In these uncertain, complex times, these leaders have demonstrated the importance of keeping purpose at the centre of all actions.  These people demonstrated that under trying circumstances, people can show amazing resilience and the ability to respond to the unexpected. 

In recent years, even before the pandemic, we saw the flattening of corporate structures and growth of matrixed teams, with decisions increasingly made at every level of an organisation. The high profile examples of spontaneous leadership we have seen as a result of Covid-19 may well encourage and reinforce this trend as organisations recognise the value of leadership at all levels of an organisation.

So, what can organisations and governments learn from the crisis?  With time to reflect, Covid-19 has uncovered a more self-confident society, not promoting ‘strong leaders’ but instead seeking leadership from everywhere and nowhere. Around the world, people will be inspired by what they can achieve.  Successful organisations will invest in developing ‘first time’ leaders as much as senior ones.  It’s a liberating concept and offers the potential to make more engaging, collaborative and humanised workplaces.  

Nick Cutland, Director of Quality – City & Guilds Group comments,

“Employers, educators and policymakers are increasingly coming to realise that leadership is not a set of behaviours restricted to, or exclusively needed by, those in positions of authority.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has served to reinforce the fact that leadership can include taking the initiative to inspire and encourage colleagues and peers without being in a position of authority over them.”

“As we move into a challenging and uncertain political and economic period it will be vital for organisations to nurture these kind of leadership behaviours at all levels to manage disruption, rebuild confidence and adapt to a changing future.”

Nick Cutland will host a discussion with academics and business leaders on Tuesday 6 October at 10.00 BST.

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