The COVID-19 pandemic has barrelled its way across the globe, leaving social, economic, financial – and in some cases, political – devastation in its wake. But there’s something else that has emerged very quickly and with astonishing consistency that I hope will persist: Displaying humanity and heart is now a highly visible part of successful leadership. In fact, leading with heart and humanity has emerged as something of a leadership superpower. In the past, enlightened and progressive organizations have embraced humanity with the principles of servant leadership, emotional intelligence, and the like, but they’ve been far from mainstream. I now see many more organizations coming to the realization that human beings work for us, and if we expect them to show up and devote their time, energy, and talents for our benefit, then we must first embrace their essential humanity.

Engagement stats from around the globe tell us that we have not been doing a great job caring for our most valuable asset: our people. These statistics have plateaued at a scandalously low rate for decades – it’s a sad fact that only one in three employees in North America is engaged in their work. Too bad it has taken a pandemic to wake us up from this malaise and treat this like the huge problem, and opportunity, it presents.

Will Leading with Heart and Humanity be a Legacy of COVID-19?

The reason I have dedicated much of my professional life to helping managers is that they are the absolute linchpins when it comes to engaging their teams. More than anything or anyone else in the workplace, direct managers and supervisors influence employee engagement. Sadly, most of the time, research and data tell us they are not doing such a great job – which is why engagement has limped along year after year relatively unchanged at 30–35%. Why do our managers and leaders miss the mark so badly? Let me assure you that it’s not for lack of trying.

Most managers I have met want to do a better job, but they don’t know how. And they often default to a stereotypical approach that is overly intellectual, rational, and dry – missing the warmth and authenticity of genuine human connection and emotion. They’re focused on making an intellectual connection with their people. But leaders must connect with people’s minds and hearts in order to inspire their people to care, to feel engaged, about what they do at work each day.

During this pandemic, while all the rules are suspended and we find ourselves plunged into a Twilight Zone of sorts, a very strange thing is happening. The default leadership setting has changed for many managers, and they have started to lead intuitively. They have found a superpower. They’ve dispensed with the notion that a leader “directs,” has all the answers, and has to be buttoned up at all times (all of which alienates rather than engages) and have recognized that their people need empathy more than anything else right now.

Daily excursions into team members’ homes via webcam are blurring the boundary between work and home, and perhaps for the first time they are seeing their direct reports’ partners, children, pets, kitchen table, basements, beards, and gray hair. They are seeing their team members as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, carers, providers – as whole people rather than simply work colleagues. And they are responding as human beings – with heart and humanity, sometimes for the first time.

It’s been heart-warming to hear so many stories of leaders making daily calls to team members who live alone to make sure they are okay, sending care packages, making personal protective equipment for their teams, rescheduling meetings and shifts to accommodate home-schooling, and leaning in to demonstrate genuine care and support.

The way team members are responding and showing up surely tells us all that this is what work should be like. When your manager or supervisor cares about you as a person and will invest time to help you and make sure you are safe, you are going to show up and do your best for them and for the organization every single time. It’s a no-brainer.

The Four Emerging Superpowers

Besides caring more openly for their people (superpower #1), managers are exhibiting several other superpowers as a result of the current situation.

Superpower #2: Vulnerability and transparency. Now more than ever, managers are showing up in crumpled T-shirts in their basements on their webcams while multitasking. And that’s okay. It gives permission for others to do the same. (Longer term, I sincerely hope the iron will make a comeback!) Leaders are admitting they don’t have all the answers and trusting their teams to surface ideas and solutions and execute. It’s been well documented that leaders can’t have all the answers and shouldn’t be afraid to say so, but it seems that an unprecedented crisis is leveling the playing field and giving managers the forum to vulnerable with their people.

Superpower #3: Ambiguity. Increasingly I’m seeing managers get comfortable with ambiguity – that curious gray area that often accompanies significant change. This is a time to lean on our purpose or mission to provide direction and our values to guide our behavior. These vital business constructs don’t often filter down to our frontline leaders in a practical way to guide daily work. But when our daily work is thrown into a spin, there is real utility in our mission and values – and for someone who has been involved in crafting a good many mission or vision statements, it’s been heartening to see them being embraced fully as a true leadership compass.

Superpower #4: Ability to motivate for short-term goals. Another leadership superpower I’ve observed in recent weeks is that managers have had to rally their teams very quickly around new and sometimes very short-term goals. Often we are so focused on creating and then executing well thought-out, very detailed plans. But many of these long-term strategies have been paused or completely abandoned as businesses grapple to stay afloat and reframe what success or winning looks like.

Our own cross-industry survey of 300 managers reveals that they are galvanizing teams around three main things: changing customer demands, shifting operations, and workplace safety. And the great news is that most have done in a few weeks what may have taken months and months to accomplish in the past. They have been able to quickly reorient their teams to deliver significant change in extremely difficult circumstances. And this is in huge part because of the other superpowers: they have been empathetic, more vulnerable, and more able to operate in ambiguity as leaders.

We Need these Leadership Superpowers to Stick

My hope is that the new leadership superpowers that have bubbled to the surface during this crisis will continue as we begin to stabilize. When intellectually smart and agile leaders can also lead with vulnerability and heart, they can accomplish amazing things with their teams. And that should start to chip away at the disappointing engagement statistics and change our relationship with work forever. If the current crisis can lead us to a more engaged workforce, that would constitute one very welcome and positive outcome. Curious to learn more about unlocking your managers’ superpowers and then leveraging these skills to engage your people? Discover more on this topic here.

June 29, 2020


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