The Emergence of the “Pandemic Leader”
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, coupled with government-mandated lockdown tactics, has undoubtedly been one of the most significant events of the 21st century. During the period of the hard lockdown, only individuals working in “essential services” were permitted to leave their homes for work purposes, while other businesses remained closed.
On the other hand, employees in other industries were able to work from home due to numerous innovations being employed to make this possible. This posed a challenge to leadership, commitment to work and the performance of remote workers during the lockdown.
Given the unique circumstances, leadership continues to be one of the most critical elements for businesses and educational institutions to navigate their results successfully. The Science journal editor-in-chief Holden Thorp states that ‘the pandemic has made it more challenging, mainly because we have a massive disconnect between what people expect of Higher Education on the outside, and what Higher Education is capable of doing and wants to do on the inside.’ This is the first time South Africa has been faced with having to navigate through conditions of ambiguity, complexity and unpredictability on such a large scale.
However, as the world starts to recover from the unprecedented aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, organisational leaders from around the globe have been coerced to contend with challenges beyond the imagination of even the most proactive organisational leaders. The path to recovery is being coupled with the emergence of a new leadership style, namely the pandemic leader. The typical leader, detached from employee experience and fixated on profit and loss, is officially a thing of the past. Especially now that we continue to work on level 1 Lockdown measures despite the new variant and the spike in new infections.
The pandemic challenges organisations to enhance their engagement with employees or risk a significant decline in employee morale - or worse. The rate of retirement doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, resignations and job changes are also increasing at an alarming rate. The decisions taken now will have long-lasting outcomes. This is one of those moments where leaders are in the limelight. The organisations which will win will be able to conform to present conditions, including the ambiguity, and navigate through them. There is a philosophical difference between leaders who deem the pandemic as an obstacle and those who deem it is as a catalyst for change.
For many prominent leaders, the pandemic signalled a more sympathetic approach to business. Leaders must be empathetic, responsive and dependable. The newly established “pandemic” leader rejects the concept of the archetypical leader who directs and evaluates and instead embraces the concept of coaching, improving and inspiring employees to work to their full potential.
The notion of remote working necessitates those organisational leaders to pay much more personal attention to their employees’ well-being. Remote working can have a detrimental effect on employees’ mental and physical health. While some employees are content with working from home, many others experience feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, insomnia, burnout and other mental health issues.
In such cases, expressing concern and care for an employee’s personal well-being becomes a requirement for employees to derive meaning from the organisation. One of the trends that will distinguish successful organisations in 2021, in line with a recent media publication featured in the Harvard Business Review, is their power to aid employees to live better lives.
Ms Samantha-Jane Gravett, an associate director at Robert Walters Africa - an international recruitment agency - said: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic did not necessarily herald an entirely new work style, but it certainly fast-tracked the inevitable around flexible working, speeding the transition up by as much as five to 10 years for some companies.’
At Anglo American, Mr Mark Cutifani, renowned leader in the metals and mining industry, said that the pandemic coerced organisations to re-evaluate their goals as well as their values. ‘Companies had to demonstrate that they were really there for their communities when they needed them the most,’ said Cutifani. ‘I’m proud of how Anglo American rose to the challenge.’ Cutifani took the ‘tough but necessary’ decision to close mines at the outset of the pandemic. Even in the face of closures due to hard lockdown measures, Anglo American guaranteed salaries for its employees in South Africa, as well as housing allowances and company contributions to medical and pension funds. ‘Being a partner to our local communities is much more than simply providing employment opportunities.’
Cutifani said the most important lesson he learned during the pandemic was ‘that people are at the centre of all we do and everything we deliver, and that re-imagining mining to improve people’s lives is not simply words on a piece of paper.’
Co-author of this opinion piece Dr Andrisha Beharry Ramraj reconfirms this stating that living our purpose is about people believing that they can and do make a difference.
She further states that employees can only perform at their best when they are in good physical and mental health. Innovative organisations will share responsibility for their employees’ well-being instead of entrusting their employees with complete responsibility for their physical and mental well-being. This responsibility is not one of executives alone. Leaders at all levels, as well as colleagues, can work together to create a culture of connectedness in which it is an element of the organisation’s culture to care not only about financial outputs but also about the health and sanity of the people behind the performance and financial output who are critical to the organisation’s success.
Ironically, it is when organisations look beyond profit and performance that they enjoy even higher levels of profit and performance. The link between leadership, improved employee morale and improved performance is significant and has been demonstrated numerous times - and from an organisational context, it has become even more prominent in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Charles, I. (2021). Opportunities for HR leaders to capitalise on post-COVID. Retrieved date Septermber 15, 2021, from https://www.thehrdirector.com/features/leadership/the-opportunities-for-hr-leaders-post-covid/
Sheffield, H. (2021). The Pandemic Has Made Europe’s Top Executives Smarter… and Humbler. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from https://www.institutionalinvestor.com/article/b1thqxg6l5f7fc/The-Pandemic-Has-Made-Europe-s-Top-Executives-Smarter-and-Humbler
University, O. S. (2021). OSU University Day speaker gives blunt assessment of where science, higher education need to do better. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/osu-university-day-speaker-gives-blunt-assessment-where-science-higher-education-need-do-better
Dr Andrisha Beharry-Ramraj is a lecturer at the School of Management, Information Technology and Governance in the Discipline of Management and Entrepreneurship.
Ms Theressa Athiah is a registered master’s student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the College of Law and Management Studies, School of Management, Information Technology and Governance.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.