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Redefining Leadership in the Covid-19 Era

The dawn of the new decade has seen change on an unprecedented scale, in almost every aspect of life. The advent of the novel coronavirus has put some of the world’s most powerful nations – and most notably, their leaders – on their back foot. Political strongmen have seen their usual heavy-handed tactics fail in stopping the spread of COVID-19, even as authoritarianism continues to grow around the world

On the other hand, we have seen the rise to prominence of leaders of a different breed, from the celebrated approaches of New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden to Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Iceland’s Katrin Jakobsdottir, to name a few. In less chaotic times, their grace under fire and resolute action may have flown under the radar, with the spotlight trained on their more vocal, flamboyant counterparts.

But as old systems crumble and outmoded approaches come under scrutiny, the world is facing challenges at a scale unlike any we have seen before. This invites the question: Is it time for a new type of leader? To answer this question, we must first touch on the very definition of leadership. What IS leadership, really?

A New Definition of Leadership for a Changing World

For Muhammad Sabri, Senior Lecturer with the Iclif Executive Education Center at Asia School of Business, finding a clear definition of leadership is a task in itself. “Most people, when asked, tend to focus on the aspects of leadership that are about influencing people, motivating people, creating something to rally people behind, and answers along a similar vein,” says Sabri. “We tend to focus overly on what we do for and to other others.”

If you look at experts’ definitions, you see a similar trend. Said Peter Drucker: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” And as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously put it, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Sabri, however, believes leadership starts with leading oneself.

“It can be as simple as getting up early, making your bed… or it could be taking action against people who are not performing, or giving opportunities to those who are high performers.” A leader’s values and ability to act on those values is what defines his or her leadership agency, and is the true measure of success in the situations they face. A leader who is intrinsically truthful will remain so even if the truth is hard to hear.

The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, was one of the earliest in Europe to stand up and calmly explain what the impact of the novel coronavirus would be on Germany – that it would infect up to 70% of the population. No cover-ups, no beating around the bush – just a call to action: “It’s serious; take it seriously.” By doing this, she managed to circumvent the fear-mongering, denial, and knee-jerk responses of many of her counterparts.

In contrast, according to an article published in the peer-reviewed journal The BMJ, the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was “hampered by overcentralized, poorly coordinated, and poorly communicated policies.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged citizens to “go about business as usual” – five weeks after the first case was reported.

Being Popular Versus Making Hard Decisions

The marked difference in the results of these two nations’ initial response to the pandemic can also be seen in an organizational context. According to Sabri, a clear example of this is when it comes to promoting and firing people. “Running an office and running for office are two different things.” Unfortunately, he continues, “Most people behave as if they are doing the latter – they want to be popular and are very cautious when it comes to taking action against non-performers.

Especially in Asia, where relationships and community tend to be more important than anything else – sometimes performance is sacrificed to preserve harmony.” Promoting someone, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and organizations being in crisis mode, requires a lot of work. As Sabri explains, “If you want to request a pay raise for your team member, board members tend to push back and ask you to justify it.

Many leaders don’t do enough when it comes to documenting how well a team member has been performing.” “Managers need to realize that other departments are also seeking promotion for their team members, and when challenged by board members who might say, “Are you sure this person deserves a promotion? The last time I asked them for something, they took a long time to deliver.”

A good leader would be armed with clear evidence and be able to push back, saying, “Well, I believe that was just one instance, and I don’t think you should hold that against her. Here are many other ways that this person has been performing well.” Being able to respond in a clear, decisive way requires discipline to gather and evaluate solid facts and evidence, and the integrity to act on them.

The Right Decisions Begin with The Right Perspective

Conversely, calling out a non-performer should be clear cut – in theory. Yet in practice, Sabri has seen many instances, in companies he has consulted with, where leaders took the path of least resistance. They allowed high performers to shoulder more work in order to retain under-performers, out of a fear of confrontation. In fact, a CEO he advised once proclaimed proudly: “We never fire people.” This is a claim echoed by many organizations – ultimately, to their detriment.

Sabri urged the CEO to look at “firing” differently. “In Malaysia, letting someone go always comes with negative connotations. We grow up hearing the local saying: “Don’t put sand in someone else’s rice bowl.” But what if someone isn’t performing because the role they are in doesn’t suit their personality and skillset? What if they could be encouraged to find something that might work better for them?”

To continue the rice bowl analogy, he told the CEO: “What if you’re not putting sand in someone’s rice bowl, but helping them find something where they can have a bigger rice bowl?” The CEO got the point. He ultimately decided to set up a 3-person unit that was dedicated to helping people strategically advance their careers by moving people outside the company.

“Most career development units focus on internal promotions or lateral transfers, but this department focused on connecting people who were not a fit for the company with external opportunities, which is a very novel approach.”

Keeping People Motivated Amid Change

It’s an incredibly challenging time to be a leader. The rate of technological advancement, rapid-fire globalization, and a global pandemic has turned agility and resilience from buzzwords into daily essentials. As companies pivot and restructure and employees get transferred into new roles, keeping them motivated is an important job for a leader. Sabri has often been asked whether it is more important to help people find their fit, or to motivate them in the roles they are in.

Whatever role a person is in, he believes there are a few key drivers that support motivation. “The first is role clarity: whether individuals know what is expected of them. This is especially important at a time when working from home has become commonplace,” says Sabri. The lack of face-to-face interaction and the camaraderie of working together can be demotivating for many. It is crucial for leaders to help their teams know where to draw the line between work when work and home are in the same place.

The second driver, which is inextricably linked to the first factor, is “job alignment with passion: that is, working within an environment that allows an individual to be successful, and that matches one’s own values and passions.” Whether people are able to bring their full selves to work, they are more likely to stay motivated.

The third driver is having “a clear sense of progression and growth opportunities.” Especially at a time when many are questioning their job security, leaders must be able to help people see what lies ahead for them, and master the tricky balance between stability and adapting to fast-changing realities.

Leaders Must Reach Out and Touch Someone

It all boils down to mindset, Sabri believes. “Leaders today cannot afford to just focus on strategy and KPIs: they need to reach out and touch someone.” He reinforces the importance of face-to-face conversations for leaders.

“Being able to talk honestly and openly, one to one, even if it’s through Zoom, is crucial. Leaders have the challenge and opportunity, more than ever before, to lead through authenticity, when the external markings of being a leader – the corner office, the fancy suit, the art-lined walls – have been taken away. Today, it’s not uncommon to dial into a call with your boss and see them at home, in a T-shirt, perhaps having just come off the treadmill!”

In fact, Sabri believes the notion of “Don’t bring your problems at home to work” is a paradigm of the past, as home and work have become inseparable. Instead, he believes the new leadership paradigm should be: “Tell me your problems at home, so I can help you manage them in order for you to be your best self at work.” This sentiment is echoed and expanded upon by thought leaders from around the globe.

In his book, The Future Leader, published in January 2020, bestselling author Jacob Morgan outlined a collection of mindsets and skills that will best serve the leader of tomorrow, based on insights from over 140 top CEOs from around the world. From embracing a global awareness to fostering diversity and being open to the unknown, the book lays out a blueprint for leaders to survive and thrive in the next decade or so.

When you strip everything down to the basics, the core of true leadership, past, present or future, has always been about humanity. It took the rapid evolution of technology and the widespread effects of a global pandemic to help us reclaim this fundamental fact, but it also provides an opportunity: to rethink leadership and start leading with a fresh focus in mind.

Cultivate Your Leadership Presence at ASB

Learn more from Muhammad Sabri Rawi and explore how to cultivate authentic leadership in a post-COVID era with two exciting programs from the Iclif Executive Education Centre at Asia School of Business, Managing Performance (led by Muhammad Sabri Rawi), and Leading Leaders in Action (led by Muhammad Sabri alongside other ASB-MIT faculty).

Learn more about the program: