5 leadership lessons from the pandemic you shouldn’t miss

There is a common feeling that light is appearing at the end of a long dark tunnel. Vaccines, economic stimulus, and pent-up consumer demand might yet return us to the business and life we once knew. But before you and your team begin celebrating a new post-Covid future, whatever that may look like, it is important to reflect upon what we have experienced and learned in this process.

Failing to do so risks repeating past mistakes and missing significant opportunities ahead. From a leadership perspective it is critical to process and internalise these lessons now and not wait, as they will undoubtedly influence strategy and decision making for the future.


This will not be the last shock. Preparation is critical.

The pandemic was not unexpected. It was in fact predicted. Exactly how frequently future health shocks, environmental shocks, or economic shocks will confront us in the years to come is a matter of some debate and speculation.

What is not in question is that we need to be better prepared. We have seen great divergence in responses across societies – some were well prepared and responded effectively, while others struggled. Some of the richest countries in the world including the US and UK were slow, uncoordinated, and performed poorly.

Where the social contract is rooted in individualism ahead of collective well-being, people suffered. Where business enjoys a privileged position in critical sectors like health care and food production, many are now rightly calling for greater self-sufficiency, and regulatory oversight.

Some businesses were well prepared and acted quickly to protect their staff health and livelihoods, while pivoting to new models to ensure continuity. Others did not. Some large corporations who had for years distributed healthy dividends, prioritised stock buy backs to boost share prices, and failed to save for the crisis, were among the first to lay off staff. They have been rightly criticised.

Preparation for future crises starts with understanding the underlying drivers. It requires not accepting superficial or conventional explanations, but instead confronting difficult questions. This process is germane to the GIFT leadership learning methodology, and what we call Honest Inquiry.

The common response? Avoid taking ownership, assume someone else will manage it, run back to business as usual. You want your team to break away from this mindset as it perpetuates the state of unpreparedness.





The way we understand purpose has fundamentally shifted

Many companies have taken to communicating about their “purpose.” But what does it really mean? Glossy publications about ‘living our purpose’ risk coming across as disingenuous, based on the events of the past year. Company leaders need to be aligned with current sentiment, avoiding fluff and buzz words.

In 2021 you cannot talk about purpose without addressing the new context of the crises we have just come through, and those which await on the horizon. This is not to say that your company purpose must be related to the pandemic. But, in examining where you and your team derive your sense of purpose, you cannot ignore the existential threats – climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme inequities in access to health services and general quality of life, etc.

If your stated company purpose is divorced from the realities we have witnessed, or worse, if it inadvertently contrasts with our experience, it will be more harmful than helpful.

It is therefore more urgent now for leadership to be clear on where they derive their sense of purpose, and able to use it to inspire their teams to overcome challenges. Aligning personal and professional purpose can be highly motivating for leaders as well as staff.

Have you done this? Do you understand where your key staff derive their sense of purpose?

Too often, in our experience, this process is shortchanged. Those at the top avoid doing the hard work of clarifying purpose for themselves and spending time to facilitate and align this with their best people. Seeing this as a ‘nice to do’ but not essential means it will become sidelined and marginalised. Staff will not take it seriously and worse, may even become cynical or jaded.

GIFT helps you link purpose with the defining issues of our time. We have a process for mapping it across the personal, professional, community and societal spheres of life. Unique in the marketplace for ideas, we have seen this inspire, energise and transform teams.


Your best people have been asking hard questions. They want answers.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the trauma that your teams have endured this past year. There is no “one-size-fits-all” reaction. The impacts can be mental, emotional, and/or physical.

Some of your team will be resilient in coping. Others may be unable to bounce back without support. In all cases, there are questions they will be asking, either openly or in quiet personal reflection. It is critical that these questions be addressed and not ignored.

Some questions are basic, like “Will I continue to work from home? How many hours of Zoom calls can I expect this month? Is our business strong enough to survive and is my position secure?”

Undoubtedly, the best and brightest in your team have been questioning their deep-rooted assumptions about our societies, including the fundamental role of your business in society. How will they interpret this and judge for themselves?  Are you aware of how attitudes have changed?

Your colleagues, your company’s top talents, have watched the fallout over this past year. They watched as some governments failed the people. Yet some governments performed better than expected, despite being portrayed negatively in mainstream Western media due to their different approach to managing the political economy – China and Vietnam are examples.

You should see this as an opportunity for constructive intellectual engagement. If you fail to acknowledge their questions, to feed their curiosity, or if you send the message that you have more important things to do, you may find that your best people leave you.

GIFT facilitators have experience guiding leaders to think about how to engage in such conversations, and perhaps more importantly in how to do it skillfully and to get results.



Your customers and markets have moved. So, you cannot sit still

The impacts of the pandemic, both economic and social, have accelerated certain fundamental shifts already underway. China’s economy and geopolitical clout has advanced, relative to others. We have become trained to do more online, for better or worse. Trends in material consumption and pollution have reached frightening levels.

Lockdowns have taught us the non-essential nature of some goods and services – we can live without luxury shopping and tourism. Business travel might never recover. And yet, food security and access to health services, and the supply chains they rely upon, are now recognised as deserving more attention, and even an overhaul.

All of this means that you need to be willing to rethink and reset some aspects of your business, operations, and strategy. Indeed, your business model itself may need to change.

To do this you need to engage purposefully with your stakeholders and seek to understand how they have been affected. What does their future look like, and how that will impact your own business?

Civil society organisations can be a rich source of insights. To capture them your management and key staff need to have the skills to engage with them constructively, including essential skills in listening and demonstrating empathy. GIFT has been facilitating this process in various formats for 15 years, and it forms an important foundation of our online courses as well.

Crisis presents opportunities. But it takes effort to capture them.

The old saying goes, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In 2021, this may never have been more true than today. The past year and all its overlapping crises are sources of new ideas and opportunities. Are you actively working to capture them?

Those with a growth mindset will see the setbacks as a chance to learn and develop, but also as stimulus to rethink business as usual. This is a process that you can lead with your team. It starts with prioritising time to have the conversation and then sharing openly about what needs to change.

The GIFT approach to leadership learning is driven by outcomes. Over our 15 years working with cohorts of all levels and across sectors and industries, we are more convinced than ever of the importance of producing practical outputs. Participant energy and engagement is focused on producing ideas, proposals, business models, policy frameworks, or specific plans for personal and business transformation.

In our online courses like The Leadership Reset, the outcomes participants produce describe bold, strategic, new opportunities for their business or organisational mission.


Recent examples include:

  • Launching a new service addressing the expected demands of a carbon-constrained future;
  • Creating a new product to serve the under-served income segments of consumers;
  • Leading the transformation of clean energy usage within the business supply chain;
  • Using the company’s vast consumer data set to support the national ambitions to be more prepared for future crises.

And there are many more bold ideas for business transformations.

As you formulate your plans for the coming post-Covid era, ask yourself if you have really understood the current needs of your customers and stakeholders, and if you and your team are making the necessary changes to meet those needs.

Are you fostering a culture of originating new ideas and supporting your team to reset and refresh their thinking?  Are you taking advantage of this crisis to create new opportunities?

If you feel that you are in danger of missing any of these lessons from the past year, we encourage you to learn more about GIFT’s highly acclaimed online course The Leadership Reset.

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