I very much agree with the comments made by Conor Whelan about empathetic leadership. I came across a great phrase early on in the pandemic when someone pointed out that “we are not all in the same boat—we are all in the same storm, but we are in very different boats”, which I think sums it up well.
One of the core values of a previous employer, DuPont Pharmaceuticals, was “Everyone deserves special treatment”. It didn’t mean that everyone deserves the same special treatment, it meant treating each person according to their own needs. It’s OK for leaders to be inconsistent at the individual level – but we have to be accountable for being fair in the broader sense.
The bigger challenge with empathetic leadership is how you demonstrate it virtually. It has been really frustrating this year to not be able to be in the same room at times, to share the normal and the COVID-related highs and lows in person. It is important to me to make informal space to try to understand what is going on in people’s wider environment and to connect at a personal level. Finally, you can only encourage people to open up if you are open yourself. People don’t want weak leaders, but sharing your own vulnerabilities can be a strength, if it is done in a relatable way.
All companies are seeking to ‘bottle’ the cultural and working practice innovation that was the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have dramatically accelerated digitization, flexible working maturity, new ways of collaboration and, in doing so, unlocked faster decision making despite all the human constraints of 2020.
As we now make these changes permanent, the sort of leadership Conor describes is exactly what is needed. Business needs to find the right balance for meaningful and physical community, collaboration and coaching whilst continuing to enjoy all the flexibility and location freedom of the last year. Brining all your employees on this journey will require you to really know them, a good deal of empathy and for you to be brave with your own business model.