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Does a pandemic require a special type of leadership?

by Tradeling editorial team

The COVID-19 pandemic, with all its challenges and restrictions, has been a prime example of what is commonly known as a V.U.C.A. environment. The acronym stands for a world that is driven by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

The challenges we faced in 2020 were on many dimensions an extreme form of a V.U.C.A. world. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been global, long-lasting, complex, and from a pure humanity point-of-view devastating! Leadership through this crisis has been pushing managers to their limits, both intellectually as well as emotionally.

Remote work and remote management are tough! You cannot bond properly; you cannot sense and feel your team members’ reactions. Your leadership is stripped off the most important tool: the need to profoundly connect with your team members. Instead, you are limited to a quantifiable way of leadership through deliverables and timelines.

As a CEO of a young startup that has been in the early stages of defining its team development, it was particularly difficult to lead a (growing) group of people, which was somewhere between the storming and norming stages. Our path to success, however, was an early focus on developing a culture of empowerment and decentralised decision-making. In retrospective, I would go as far as proposing that this has been the single most important reason for our successful navigation through the toughest months of the pandemic lockdown.

But we had already established a culture that fosters trust in decentralised decision-making, even before the pandemic hit. As a leader you trust your team as being your co-leaders. This is based on four critical enablers:

  1. Create clarity around your common goal(s)
  2. Ensure everyone fully understands decision authority levels, i.e., how to take decisions by themselves vs. when to involve peers or superiors
  3. Communicate frequently to create transparency
  4. Empower through trust, coaching and mentoring

When the crisis led to a lockdown and an enforced working from home environment, we, as a team, had to adapt to the new situation. Very early on, even before our Board asked us to do so, we adjusted our business/spend plan to reflect the challenges we expected in the coming months. Our guiding principle was to not lay off people because of the pandemic. Instead, we spent time thinking how we can turn around the launch of our new startup and ensure that despite the pandemic we become a successful startup. We had to be extremely agile, to an extent that we had to give up our initial launch scope for which we had spent four months preparing, and instead we launched a new product line within two weeks. 

We launched a viral marketing campaign that became very successful and created enough visibility to put us on the map as a relevant business-to-business e-commerce player. All of the required decisions leading to these changes were taken by the respective team members. As a CEO, I felt very privileged that I did not have to push anyone to do the right thing. The team simply stepped up and made things happen!

In terms of the type of leadership that the company needed, my attention as a CEO shifted very quickly from being a strategic business and people leader to becoming a custodian of team morale. My virtual meetings increasingly centered around understanding how the team felt, and to push team spirit. This shift in my CEO attention was only possible because of the underlying company culture that we had established before and during the pandemic: the leadership team was able to shape through our decentralised decision culture, enabling me to free up time to keep the team morale intact.

Looking back, not everyone has been a great decision-maker from the outset. But everyone was able to grow stronger, simply because we allowed for mistakes; we even designed our culture to absorb management flaws. All these mistakes are part of the journey towards our success. Why? Simply because of the learning curve that has been accelerated.

I believe that giving trust is the ultimate push towards creating an agile and high-performing environment. Nobody with a right mindset wants to let his or her leader down that has entrusted them with decision-making power. Hence, they will be pushy, thorough, and will not stop until the job is done. This fact only underlines what I call the ultimate job of every CEO:

  1. You have to hire the right people
  2. You have to mentor, enable and empower them
  3. You have to remove those that are incompatible, the sooner the better

It’s all about people! With or without a pandemic.

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