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What 2020 can TEACH us about Leadership…and Life

Turn the page on 2020. Leave it behind. It’s tempting to do. Millions of individuals worldwide have been infected. Thousands of lives lost. A healthcare system strained to the breaking point. Economies in tatters–job loss, small businesses shuttered, families struggling to pay rent or pay for food. Reminders of the systemic presence of racial injustice that have amplified conversations and action, but have also caused additional racial trauma for so many.

It’s hard to find the positives, the light, the path forward. We talk about resiliency–but resiliency implies a bouncing back to where we were and where we can’t go back. Too much has changed. Our eyes have been opened to our collective vulnerability–to our impact on each other physically, psychologically, emotionally, and economically. We need to reimagine what our world is going to be like as we start to take tentative steps into 2021 with hope.

But before we can leave behind a year that has taken so much away from us, we need to understand what this year has given us. We’ve gained lessons about leadership and new perspectives on Trust, Empowerment, Accountability, Community, and Humanity. What did 2020 TEACH us?

  • Trust – 2020 reminded us how important trust is to all relationships including those between leaders and their teams. Employees have looked to their leaders, during this year of great uncertainty, and asked them to be transparent in their communication and interactions, even when the news wasn’t always good. They’ve asked them to be reliable by showing up regularly and helping them overcome new challenges. And they’ve looked to them to be selfless and understanding to the personal challenges brought about by home schooled children, social isolation, increased fear, and anxiety. More than ever, leaders have shown up authentically for their people and expressed their own vulnerabilities during a time when no one was immune to stress and strain. Transparency, reliability, authenticity, selflessness–key elements of trust that 2020 has illuminated as being important to a trusting relationship. Teachable moment: Leadership is less about follow up, more about trust. The more trust you give, the more your people will trust you as a leader.
  • Empowerment – The immediate pivot to alternate approaches to working shifted the paradigm of the leader-employee relationship. This was not a year of leaders bestowing empowerment on others, but of employees making decisions and taking actions of their own accord because they simply knew what needed to get done. Without immediate physical access to leaders and colleagues, and with the need to respond quickly, employees answered client calls, delivered products, or innovated in some way to get the job done. Empowerment is about feeling that you can make decisions and take action without asking permission–in 2020 employees “just did it” and demonstrated that they know what is required to be successful. Teachable moment: Continue to give power away–let your employees make decisions and support them.
  • Accountability – This year amplified accountability in its many layers. Virtual teams became the norm and leaders realized that just because they couldn’t see their teams working it didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Productivity and engagement of employees remained constant despite alternate ways of working. People proved they could get-it-done and be accountable for their contributions. On a larger scale, accountability has been amplified in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is greater awareness for the fact that conversations on DE&I aren’t enough. Organizations, leaders, and employees need to move beyond conversations–they need to be accountable for taking actions consistent with creating a culture of inclusivity. Changing policies, looking at hiring and other practices, and sharing power are just some of the ways accountability around DE&I has flourished. Teachable moment: Focus on actions that produce desired outcomes more so than physical proximity or words.
  • Community – 2020 simultaneously wrecked and bolstered community. What it took away in the form of human contact, in the form of physical proximity, it gave back in spirit. This year reminded leaders and their people that their groups are more than teams of workers–they are a community of individuals who support, share, and need each other to thrive. Community was reinforced in the creative ways people found to connect with each other socially–through Zoom Happy Hours, socially distanced gatherings or through the personal conversations that have increasingly marked the start of meetings and conversations across the globe. Community emerged in the shared purpose employees felt in meeting customer needs despite obstacles. And it was perhaps most pronounced in the frontline and healthcare workers who put their lives on the line to serve their communities. Teachable moment: Community is a more powerful motivator than taskkeep it alive on your teams.
  • Humanity – Thank you, 2020, for reminding us that we are not the center of the universe. Even the best of leaders can’t control everything. We are human beings who fail, who get sick, who care about each other, who lift each other up, and who need each other. 2020 taught us everything about empathy–putting ourselves in other people’s shoes emotionally and cognitively. That doesn’t need to change with the arrival of a vaccine. We will continue to be human beings who will struggle and succeed. The more we can seek to understand the unique experiences of our colleagues, the more connected we will be. It is that shared humanity that reminds us that together we can achieve anything. Teachable moment: Connecting with each other as human beings shouldn’t end with a vaccine. Empathy should be a #2021goal.

2020 is a wasted year–but only if we let it be. There are things this year can teach us that we can carry forward to grow a better world, organization, leader, employee, and human being. Trust, empowerment, accountability, community, and humanity–let’s do more than rebound, let’s take these lessons forward and emerge a little stronger and also a little kinder.

About the Authors

Leah Clark
Leah Clark is a leadership development professional with over 28 years of experience in her field. She has a unique perspective on the mindsets and skillset that are critical to leadership success and brings that perspective to her coaching and consulting. Leah’s clients benefit from her collaborative approach to crafting a well-connected and thoughtful leadership development strategy. Her company, LeaderConnect, makes meaningful connections for leaders and leadership development professionals around the issues that matter most.

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