The turbulence of 2020 has provided a new lens through which to look at our leaders, prompting a rethink of what leadership should look like in the Covid era and beyond.
Over the past nine months, leaders have had to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, sweeping technological changes, worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, and of course the US presidential election. In the UK, there’s also Brexit lurking just around the corner, compounded by the economic consequences. Note that EY is reporting that 7,500 jobs and $1 trillion of assets have already left Britain as a result.
Remember the simpler, slower times when moving office would take six months to arrange? Now, entire workforces shift to working from home over a single weekend. Fast decisions are required more than ever from our business leaders.
A different kind of leader is emerging in this “new normal”: business executives who can demonstrate agility, innovation, and a willingness to listen.
Misinformation, economic uncertainty and health have all underpinned heightened anxiety levels in 2020. As a result, business executives have had to become drivers of honest conversation. Leadership must be more open and responsive — directly engaging with stakeholders, taking action, changing direction, and even acknowledging faults where necessary.
The business leaders who have been most successful are those who stepped forward to act decisively, without waiting for government legislation or guidance. Indeed, alva’s own research has found that leaders who seize the moment and take strong vocal positions on emerging social and political issues have resonated most effectively with stakeholders.
And this decisiveness is broadening to other issues beyond the immediate concerns. With the rise in stakeholder capitalism and deepening divisions in society, there’s an expectation for businesses to step forward, act and advocate on social issues, such as the Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) agenda and diversity.
The ESG agenda has become increasingly core for business over the past few years, but this process has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Examples are plentiful. Waitrose has committed to remove plastic from all packaging, while Tesco set a five-year goal of a 300 per cent increase in plant-based products.
Most recently, Bentley Motors, led by chief executive Adrian Hallmark, announced that from 2026 onwards, it will only produce plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars with an aim to drop all combustion engines in the next decade. That’s good business sense, given that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030 in the UK. Profit and ESG commitments go hand-in-hand. No longer are they in stern competition.
We are perhaps witnessing a widening of the dichotomy between this new “listening” leadership style that is mindful of ESG issues, and one that is less inclusive of stakeholders, representative of the approach we have seen for the last 50 years of shareholder supremacy.
Nowhere was this attitude clash more obvious than during the US election campaign.
Take the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the run-up to the election, 23 NBA teams turned their facilities — arenas, practice facilities and other properties — into polling centres. When the Atlanta Hawks became the first team in any American sports league to volunteer its arena as a polling place, its chief executive Steve Koonin took the lead and announced “we aim to be a community asset… we need to be more than just a basketball team”.
Meanwhile, the leading tech giants we all know so well seemed stuck in the old mould of leadership. Twitter and Facebook have been widely criticised by both sides of the political spectrum for their response to election misinformation on social media platforms. Their leaders did not appear to acknowledge their civic responsibilities to do more.
Now that Covid vaccines are available and heading towards mass rollout, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey’s leadership will be ultimately defined by how swiftly — or ineffectively — they tackle misinformation.
As society itself shows an increasingly divided mindset, I expect to see corporate leadership follow suit. But with an unprecedented range of toxic issues for the corporate leader to negotiate, the winners will surely be those that act with decisiveness and sensitivity.
Main image credit: Getty