Agility and compassion: That’s what leadership looks like in a Covid-19 world

Leadership qualities. Picture: iStock
Leadership qualities. Picture: iStock

Leaders in a world forever changed by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic will have to demonstrate agility and compassion and have an excellent understanding of South Africa’s socioeconomic realities.

Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) faculty Professor Karl Hofmeyr told a recent Gibs Flash Forum that the current Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the real role of business, which is not to make money, but rather to add value and purpose to people’s lives.

Andile Sangqu, Gibs’ executive in residence and former vice president of the Minerals Council SA and executive head for Anglo American SA, said the current crisis has exposed the fault lines that already existed in the country and believes life as it was before the pandemic won’t return.

There is so much good that can come out of this difficult time. We must build new momentum for change and emerge stronger.
Andile Sangqu

“This is a social and economic crisis, as well as a health and humanitarian one,” Sangqu said.

However, he urged the country to leverage the shared sense of goodwill the pandemic has created: “The crisis has resulted in a renewed sense of compassion and solidarity. It has presented us with an opportunity to have a conversation about what kind of society we want.”

New leadership characteristics

Leaders in this new world will have to lead with more courage, conviction and decisiveness, Sangqu continued.

“Neither government, business nor civil society have all the answers. We have to listen to all voices, with humility. We have been presented with an opportunity to work together and this is an opportunity for business to demonstrate compassion transparency.”

Founder of consulting and coaching business the Hatch Institute and founder of Sorbet, Ian Fuhr, said leaders of small and medium businesses will have to possess different skills in the future, and not just a narrow focus on the bottom line.

“Business has a moral obligation to uplift people and to redevelop the economy if we want this country to succeed. Businesses will have to become as obsessed with growing the economy as they are with growing their businesses,” he said.

Leaders will have to demonstrate a holistic set of skills and have a good understanding of the sociopolitical environment, Fuhr explained.

“The current pandemic means the concept of putting people before profit has now taken on a whole new meaning. The purpose of work is to serve people, and we need to keep the human element strong and not just focus on cutting costs,” he added.

Business leaders must have genuine concern for their employees’ wellbeing, as empathetic leadership and caring about people’s circumstances in turn encourage employee loyalty.

Fuhr said culture driven leaders had to earn the moral authority to lead and can’t simply rely on their place in the hierarchy: “Leaders must earn trust and respect through general concern for people and their growth and development.”

Company culture must encourage a sense of belonging.

While businesses of all sizes are under immense financial pressure, Fuhr said large companies implementing cost savings through retrenchments must ensure these are absolutely necessary: “The risk of social unrest is not out of the realm of possibility, and business must strive to revive the economy by keeping as many people employed as possible. The more people we are retrenching, the more I worry about this economy.”

Business has a moral obligation to uplift people and to redevelop the economy if we want this country to succeed.
Ian Fuhr

Sangqu said it is important leaders focus on truthful, frequent and non-alarmist communication, and open up about areas of vulnerability by “tapping into the wisdom of the collective and acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers”.

“Communications is not just about talking, but also about listening. Leaders must create a space where people can talk about their own situation as this creates bonds of loyalty.”

Good leaders respond to current crises with the future in mind, he added, as employees need to see a clear plan of action.

A collective future

Fuhr said government must realise that business is walking a tightrope: “We have to responsibly get people back to work as soon as possible.”

Sangqu added business had to encourage economic activity in ways that are safe and responsible.

“We must be pragmatic and responsible,” he said.

No single entity will be able to solve our economic problems on their own, as “the challenge facing us is so vast and overwhelming that it requires all hands on deck”.

“We can’t go back to the ‘old normal’. Covid-19 is a seismic event, but also provides us with a chance to call on society to reflect and correct course. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to lift our gaze and start thinking about the collective future we want.

“There is so much good that can come out of this difficult time. We must build new momentum for change and emerge stronger,” Sangqu said.

“It is a moment to collaborate and pick up our sense of nationhood, which requires courageous, unifying leadership.”

City Press is a media partner of the Gibs forums

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