Has the Meaning of Leadership Shifted as a Result of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has uprooted the way organizations conduct business, and it’s unclear what life will look like after the fog starts to lift. Businesses that are lucky enough to be able to work remotely have had to undergo a rapid shift from daily in-office contact to entirely remote work conducted at home. All of these changes are happening against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, canceled trips, and fears for both physical and mental health.

Leading an organization through such a crisis is no easy task. Crisis management has always been a key component of being a successful leader, but COVID-19 is an entirely different type of crisis, one that affects just about everyone in the economy.

The needs of employees have changed.

A recent analysis from Gallup found that there are four universal needs that people want from their leaders in times of crisis: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. Trust points to the belief that leadership can successfully navigate the challenge. Compassion hints at the human element and the need to be empathetic towards employees who are dealing with changes of their own. Stability refers to the need to feel some consistency and stability in day-to-day life. And finally, hope points to the need to feel that, although times are tough, the organization can successfully weather the storm and emerge out the other side intact.

What’s interesting is that all four of these needs point to the same quality that a great leader should have: emotional intelligence.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own and other people’s emotions, as well as the ability to manage your own emotions and respond to others’ emotions in an appropriate way.

Emotional intelligence is a relatively recent concept first popularized in the 1990s. Despite its newness, organizations have gradually bought into the idea that employees need to be emotionally intelligent, and even more so for employees charged with managing people. One study from CareerBuilder found that 75% of hiring managers were more likely to promote a person with high emotional intelligence over someone with a high IQ.

Emotional intelligence is a particularly important quality to have in roles where you are managing other team members. One article from SHRM highlighted four key components of emotional intelligence that have been identified through research: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. It’s clear why these qualities would lead a manager to be more successful at managing a team. More importantly, it’s abundantly clear why these qualities would be even more important during a crisis like COVID-19.

The need for emotionally intelligent leaders is not new. Organizations have increasingly accepted the importance of emotional intelligence over the last two to three decades. But the current pandemic has accelerated its importance, and forced us all to ask difficult questions. For example, how can a leader successfully motivate a team that is 100% remote? How can a leader inspire the sense of trust, compassion, stability, and hope that employees are desperately searching for in uncertain times? We may increasingly find that part of the answer lies with emotional intelligence.