Looking for answers? Jump to the expert Q&A.
In the wake of the global pandemic that reshaped so much of our world, leadership has found itself at a crossroads. The challenges brought about by COVID-19 have not only altered the way we work but have also transformed the expectations we have from our leaders. It’s a moment in time that demands reflection, adaptation, and a deep understanding of the evolving dynamics in the world of leadership.
In a world characterized by uncertainty, economic fluctuations, social justice issues, and ongoing mental health challenges, leadership faces a unique set of challenges. The pendulum of change swings wildly as organizations grapple with talent shortages, employee engagement issues, and the emergence of a new generational shift, as Gen Z enters the workforce in increasing numbers and Baby Boomers continue to recede.
Leaders, too, find themselves navigating uncharted waters, striving to strike a balance between remote and in-person work, all while adapting to the evolving needs of their teams. Trust, both within leadership and in the organization itself, becomes a cornerstone that must be built and maintained.
In last week’s webinar – Coaching for an Evolving Leadership Landscape: How Effectiveness Has Changed Since 2020 – we took a data-driven approach to discovering strategies for leadership development that work for today’s complex environment.
Read on for highlights from the webinar, or jump to the end of the post for Q&A with the MRG experts. For a more in-depth look at the findings and their coaching implications, watch the full webinar on-demand now.
PART 1: Are leaders less effective today than they were pre-pandemic?
In the realm of leadership, the global pandemic reshaped the way we work, communicate, and collaborate. But what does this mean for the effectiveness of our leaders? Are they seen as less effective since the pandemic?
Anecdotally, many have felt that leaders might be less effective now than they were before the pandemic. In fact, in our unscientific poll of webinar attendees, 57% believed that leaders are less effective now than they were prior to the pandemic.
To tackle this question, we conducted a global study of more than 7,000 leaders. The study compared two groups matched on function, level, gender, region, and generation: one group who had taken the LEA 360 assessment in 2018 or 2019, and other who had taken it 360 in 2022 or 2023, marking the post-pandemic era. (The purpose of this matching was to isolate the effects of the time period—pre-pandemic and post-pandemic—on leadership effectiveness.)
The critical question at hand: Are leaders today less effective than their pre-pandemic counterparts?
The answer may come as a surprise: today’s leaders are actually rated as more effective than their pre-pandemic counterparts in several critical competencies:
1. Working with Diverse People
A few possible explanations for why leaders today may be increasing their effectiveness in working with diverse colleagues:
- The remote work environment expanded leaders’ networks, leading to more diverse interactions and, consequently, improved abilities to work with diverse individuals.
- In times of uncertainty, leaders increasingly sought insights from individuals with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, enriching their problem-solving capabilities.
- Focusing on overarching goals rather than specific team dynamics helped leaders collaborate effectively with a wide range of individuals.
2. Inclusive Leadership
Leaders may be acting more inclusive for a few reasons:
- The pandemic’s unpredictability prompted leaders to invite more people into problem-solving spaces, fostering inclusivity.
- Experts in niche areas, previously overlooked, became invaluable contributors during the rapid shift to virtual communication.
- Creating environments where people felt respected and connected became crucial amidst widespread uncertainty.
3. Overall Effectiveness
This is a noteworthy finding and one we will continue to examine as we determine the persistence of this trend upward. Leadership requirements may have evolved during the pandemic, potentially making these new requirements more attainable for a broader spectrum of leaders.
The post-pandemic world has witnessed leaders rising to meet new challenges with adaptability, inclusivity, and effectiveness. While these findings are promising, it’s important to continue monitoring leadership trends to determine if these improvements are lasting or temporary.
Leadership effectiveness is inextricably linked to the evolving needs of organizations and society. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of leadership, it’s crucial for leaders and organizations to remain agile and open to new approaches that foster collaboration, diversity, and inclusion.
PART 2: How has leadership effectiveness changed since 2020?
To deepen our understanding of post-pandemic leadership, we sought the answer to another critical question: What are effective leaders doing differently now compared to before the pandemic?
To explore this, we narrowed the focus within those matched groups of pre- and post-pandemic leaders, focusing on the top 25% of leaders in overall leadership effectiveness. We aimed to identify which behaviors were emphasized differently by pre-pandemic and post-pandemic leaders, painting a vivid picture of the evolving leadership landscape.
Pre-Pandemic Leaders: Assertive and Results-Oriented
Let’s start by exploring the characteristics of pre-pandemic leaders who excelled in their roles. These leaders emphasized a forceful and assertive approach to leadership. They set ambitious goals and were unrelenting in their pursuit of achievement. Their communication style was direct and straightforward, leaving no room for ambiguity. They excelled in persuading and winning people over, wielding influence and taking charge of situations.
The LEA 360™ behaviors effective pre-pandemic leaders emphasized more: Dominant; Production; Feedback; Persuasive; Management Focus
Post-Pandemic Leaders: Cooperative and Connected
In contrast, post-pandemic leaders exhibit a different set of behaviors that contribute to their effectiveness. They are more inclined to defer to senior leaders for guidance and rely on established organizational norms when making decisions. These leaders prioritize helping others and are willing to compromise, often putting their team’s interests first. Seeking input from team members and valuing their perspectives is a hallmark of their leadership. Additionally, they invest time in planning for the future and considering the broader implications of their decisions.
The LEA 360™ behaviors effective post-pandemic leaders emphasized more: [Deference to] Authority; Cooperation; Consensual; Strategic
As we examine these distinct leadership profiles, a clear theme emerges. Pre-pandemic leaders thrived by adopting an assertive, results-oriented approach, while post-pandemic leaders excel through cooperation and connection. It’s not a matter of one approach being superior to the other; rather, it’s about adaptability and knowing when to emphasize each set of behaviors.
A word of caution: this research does not advocate for leaders to completely abandon one set of behaviors in favor of the other – it’s not about flipping off a light switch. Instead, think of leadership development as adjusting a dial. When leaders turn up the dial on certain behaviors, they naturally have less time for others. The key lies in recognizing the context and the needs of the moment.
THE DO-MORE FOUR: A CLOSER LOOK AT BEHAVIORS TO BOOST
As coaches, we can leverage these findings about the behaviors associated with leadership effectiveness to help guide individuals’ developmental goals. Taking a closer look at the four behaviors that the top post-pandemic leaders are flexing most can help us support leaders in meeting today’s unique challenges.
What’s remarkable about these behaviors – the “Do More Four” – is that they fall into the category of “slowdown behaviors.” But what exactly does that mean? Slowdown behaviors prompt leaders to take a pause from their usual forward momentum. Instead, they encourage reflection, gathering information, and making more deliberate decisions.
1. Deference to Authority: Checking What’s Happening Above
In stable times, leaders can make decisions within their own spheres, confident in their understanding of the organization’s purpose and clear strategic goals. However, as uncertainty prevails and the landscape shifts, highly effective leaders turn their attention upward. They become more attuned to what’s happening above them in the organizational hierarchy.
Amidst this instability, effective leaders take a moment to ensure alignment within the organization amidst change. They seek to understand the direction in which the organization is heading, acknowledging the importance of staying attuned to the changing winds.
2. Cooperation: Putting the Team First
Cooperation becomes a key behavior as leaders prioritize helping others and accommodating their needs. We have seen an understandable shift from the “take the hill” mentality to a more holistic approach that takes care of the team as a whole.
3. Consensual: Valuing Others’ Input
Consensual leaders actively gather input from various sources and allow it to influence their thinking. This behavior encourages a more inclusive approach, where potential risks are flagged, and ideas from diverse perspectives are valued.
4. Strategic: Comprehensive Thinking and Planning
In uncertain times, leaders project into the future, carefully considering where the organization should be headed. This cognitive slowdown allows leaders to think comprehensively about the path forward, assessing potential implications even when the route isn’t clear.
While the first three behaviors may seem like relationship-oriented slowdowns, strategic thinking introduces a cognitive slowdown. It’s about thinking things through comprehensively, considering the organization’s direction, and continuously assessing the potential consequences of various decisions.
In essence, these slowdown behaviors work in harmony to create a more adaptive and resilient leadership style. They enable leaders to navigate the uncharted waters of a post-pandemic world with confidence and clarity.
As leadership continues to evolve, it’s essential for leaders and organizations to recognize the value of slowdown behaviors. Embracing these adaptive strategies allows leaders to thrive in times of uncertainty, maintaining a balance between assertiveness and empathy.
In a world where change is the only constant, leaders who can adeptly shift their approach to match the moment will lead their teams and organizations toward brighter, more resilient futures. It’s a time of transformation and growth, and for those who pay attention to leadership, it’s an opportunity to embrace change and thrive.
5 WAYS TO CHANGE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT FOR THE FUTURE
In a world that has been profoundly affected by the global pandemic, leadership has been put to the test like never before. It’s time to “stop the madness” – to step off the relentless treadmill of expectations and embrace a new paradigm – one that prioritizes shared leadership, stability, and a sustainable approach.
Leadership has long been seen as a solitary endeavor, with leaders shouldering the weight of a multitude of expectations. In the past, the rallying cry has been to make leaders more daring, more expansive, more innovative, and more courageous. Leaders were expected to take risks and drive relentless innovation.
However, the times we find ourselves in have shifted the narrative. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged leaders in unprecedented ways. It has highlighted the need for leaders to be grounded, focused, and stable, not just for themselves but for their teams. In this era of uncertainty, personal practices that promote well-being and resilience are paramount.
In the pursuit of effective leadership in today’s complex world, we must embrace a new set of priorities. Here are five imperatives that can guide organizations and those who support leaders on this transformative journey:
1. Help Leaders Focus on Today’s Highest Priorities.
This means we must stop heaping ever-greater expectations on leaders. The ever-shifting organizational landscape demands a level of stability and certainty. Leaders must first cultivate personal practices that keep them grounded, centered, and stable. Only then can they impart this sense of security to their teams. This requires thoughtful prioritization.
2. Create Clear Expectations.
Too many organizations communicate conflicting messaging about both the state of the organization and what leaders are expected to do about it. Now is the time to give leaders greater levels of stability and certainty – clear and consistent expectations can help ground leaders in an uncertain time.
3. Make Development Specific and Unique to Individuals.
It’s time to set aside those sprawling competency models that demand all leaders be all things to all people. Those expectations were never realistic, and given today’s challenges, are likely both irrelevant and unrealistic. Today, it’s essential to use assessments to give leaders specific diagnostic leaders about their own unique needs to inform a path forward that is relevant and actionable.
4. Banish the Myth of the Hero Leader.
Many organizations expect individuals to be able to “do it all” – while our research indicates that leaders who can balance both relationships and results are exceedingly rare. A more realistic path? Creating a culture of shared leadership, allowing people to lean into their individual strengths while leveraging the strengths of others – resulting in better results and less burnout.
5. Recognize that Leaders are People, Too.
We often speak of “leaders” as if they are a different species than the typical “worker.” So while we’ve made strides in recognizing the stress impacting the workforce overall, we sometimes imagine leaders are immune to them. The leader is not a superhuman; they experience the same frustrations, stresses, and uncertainties as every other employee. Instead of burdening leaders with solving every issue, organizations should carefully select priorities and values to focus on.
The world has changed, and leadership must evolve with it. The post-pandemic world demands a different approach, one that values stability, shared leadership, and sustainable practices. It’s time to stop piling more onto the shoulders of leaders and instead offer them the support and clarity they need to thrive in this new era.
As organizations and those who guide leaders, we have a unique opportunity to shape the future of leadership. Let’s focus on what truly matters, helping leaders and their teams navigate the uncertain path ahead with resilience, shared purpose, and a renewed sense of unity. Together, we can redefine leadership for a brighter future.
Q&A with the Experts
Questions on Research
Q: Is effectiveness data consistent across observer groups (peers, direct reports and bosses)?
A: (Maria) Our global study of pandemic effects on leadership effectiveness found that post pandemic leaders are more effective that pre-pandemic leaders in three areas: the ability to work with diverse people, inclusive leadership and overall leadership effectiveness.
These results are based on aggregate data that calculates a combined observer score for each leader. This average score is weighted by observer group. Did all observer groups report greater effectiveness in all these areas?
The analysis focusing on just direct reports found results similar to results of the combined observer analysis. That is, post-pandemic leaders being rated higher than pre-pandemic leaders on overall effectiveness as a leader, inclusive leadership and the ability to work with diverse people. When we looked at perceptions of just bosses or just peers, we found that they report higher levels of effectiveness in Overall effectiveness and inclusive leadership in leaders now than what we saw in pre-pandemic leaders.
A really interesting result of the analysis by observer group is that post-pandemic leaders are rated high on having Future Potential (the ability to go beyond their present level) than before the pandemic. However, this result only emerges when we look at the groups separately.
Q: Are there industry or regional differences in how the pandemic influenced leaders’ ability to work with diverse people?
Video answer from Maria:
Q: Did leadership effectiveness change consistently across regions?
Our global study of pandemic effect on leadership effectiveness found that post-pandemic leaders are rated higher on three measures of effectiveness: Overall Effectiveness as a Leader/Manager, Inclusive Leadership and the Ability to Work with Diverse People.
A remaining question is whether these differences were similar across regions. To answer this, we looked at three specific regions: North America, Asia and Europe. Pre-pandemic leaders were not rated higher on any of the 32 LEA effectiveness measure, but post-pandemic leaders were more effective than their pre-pandemic counterparts on the following:
- Overall effectiveness as a leader/manager
- Inclusive Leadership
- Ability to work with diverse people
- Overall effectiveness as a leader/manager
- Inclusive Leadership
- Ability to work with diverse people
- Showing resilience
- Delivering Results
- Overall effectiveness as a leader/manager
- Inclusive leadership
Q: Is there any other time in history when your research identified a shift in overall leadership effectiveness?
Video answer from Maria:
Q: Were there any significant differences in the behaviors [leaders were exhibiting]?
A: (Maria) The behaviors that characterize pre-pandemic leadership are behaviors that post-pandemic leaders emphasize less. Anything that was higher pre-pandemic is emphasized less post-pandemic and would indicate decreases in behavior.
Q: Have you seen a difference in the effectiveness in leadership shift for corporate vs. government/non-profit leaders?
A: (Maria) Great question! We did not conduct research on this question. However, based on all the findings when segmenting data by region and industry, I would hypothesize that the general trends would show up in this group of leaders.
Q: What industries were the leaders from? What is the demographic of the leaders?
A: (Maria) You can explore the complete demographics of the study here.
Q: Are there any areas of leadership where effectiveness decreased post-pandemic?
A: (Maria) Good question. It is always important to look at both increases and drops in effectiveness. Fortunately, our research only found increases in effectiveness. Some scores dropped slightly, but their effect sizes were small enough to not be of practical significance. That is, we are not likely to notice them when working with leaders in our coaching.
Questions on Application
Q: Is the sense of stability not related to the scarcity of resources, during and post-pandemic?
A: (Tricia) I think the sense of stability is in part related to the scarcity of resources during a post pandemic. I also think there are several other factors in play. I think the uncertainty that comes from the varied ways people are working (working remote, hybrid, in person) and the degree to which employees’ preferred options will remain available have created a level of uncertainty and instability. I think we also have financial, social justice, climate, and political uncertainty that all combine to create less stability than we’ve seen in recent history. Finally, many people are dealing with mental health issues either for themselves, or for people that they love or for people that they work with which, for many, is creating an additional level of instability in family and work systems.
Q: Would you consider the pre-pandemic environment categorized by more certainty?
A: (Tricia) I would consider the pre-pandemic environment as more certain than the environment that we are in now. Prior to the pandemic, we had a level of economic security. And while we had labor shortages, they were not as significant as we find them now. And while there are always global challenges that affect people’s lives and psyches, we didn’t have as many global issues as we have currently such as the war and Ukraine, and the rapid succession of natural disasters. in addition, we have the social justice issues that while present prior to the pandemic came more to the fore during and after the pandemic. I also think the level of uncertainty regarding where people are going to work, and whether organizations are going to move or continue to move towards in-office mandates creates an additional level of instability that wasn’t present pre-pandemic. So, while I don’t want to present pre-pandemic as a panacea and state of bliss for all, it was by most measures more certain than our environment is today.
Q: Seems like the change in leadership is crisis related – pandemic causing major uncertainty for organizations. Is there research on past similar events like the recession in 2008 to see if similar trends took place?
A: (Tricia) We did indeed look at the shifts in leadership behavior patterns after the 2008 global economic recession. The leadership shifts that we measured in 2009 were significantly different than the leadership pattern shifts our research has demonstrated in the post pandemic world. In 2009 highly effective leaders were placing more emphasis on using their level of technical expertise as part of their approach to leadership. They placed more emphasis on tracking and monitoring to make sure tasks were accomplished in the right way at the right time, and they spent more time pursuing more innovative ways of working. They also spent slightly less time on being strategic. Our hypothesis around this particular pattern was that it was time to be both focused on what we knew in the form of expert knowledge, to be disciplined in following through and completing what we start, to look for new ways of accomplishing things , and while strategic was still in play, a little bit less focused, because coming right out of the recession, there was still a level of unpredictability about what the road head look like. What we’re seeing in this post-pandemic world is leaders being more connected to others in the organization, so more connected to those above them in the organization more connected through collaboration and compromise, more connected by seeking input, and using the input of others and in fact, the highly effective leaders now are placing more emphasis on strategic really trying to focus on establishing the way forward. I believe these two post crisis time periods were different in several ways. While 2008 had far reaching consequences, it was primarily a financial event, and it was an example of financial events that happen in a very cyclical way. And while potentially slightly more dramatic, it was something that many adults had lived through before. It was also shorter in time. On the other hand, the pandemic was a health-related crisis that affected people in very significant ways with an extended period of dramatic uncertainty, and a long pathway back to a rhythm of life that looked a little bit more like a pre-pandemic way of living. I think there were also additional pressures we had been living with for an extended period of time such as the divisive political and social states in the US (but not limited to the US) we’ve had an expanded awareness of social justice issues, we are still navigating a significant mental health crisis, many vulnerable people are now unhoused in the US, and so what we’re navigating through now has a different texture and has a different human response than what we experience coming out of the global recession.
Q: How often do you suggest that Leaders go through the LEA 360? I’ve conducted them twice in my career each in different organizations.
A: (Tricia) In considering how often leaders should go through the LEA 360 we reflect on a few possibilities. The most common reason people consider redoing the 360 is to discover if behaviors leaders have been working to change, are evident to others. And if that is the primary reason for doing reassessment, then we actually recommend not doing a full LE 360 but instead either coaching the leader on how to seek feedback either verbally or in writing from their stakeholders, or we conduct short surveys often with something simple like survey monkey , so that the leader can get feedback from their stakeholders on the behavior changes they are attempting to make. Another reason you might consider repeating the LEA360 is if a leader has made a significant change in the organization, so perhaps a promotion or a different team or a different department or they have a substantially different group of people now working for and with them. In that circumstance, it can be helpful to give the leader this assessment feedback that reflects how they’re doing in this new situation or with this new group of people. In that case we would suggest waiting approximately nine months before a new 360 is completed. Finally, if the desire is to track more holistically how a leader’s behavior is evolving, then we would recommend doing the LEA 360, approximately every 18 months.
Q: Any conjecture on WHY the shift from processes and results to more people-oriented behaviors and competencies?
A: (Tricia) We think the shift to more people-oriented behaviors and competencies is likely coming about because both the leaders and those they are interacting with have a desire for more connection, more collaboration, more contact with each other. This way of leading increases trust, helps people feel more engaged, and helps people feel more connected to both the leader and the team. Because organizations ultimately do need to achieve goals and have processes that support the achievement of those goals, it is our hypothesis that the approach to leadership overtime will re-balance and ideally end in a blended space where processes and results are supported while people-oriented behaviors and competencies are still highly valued.
Q: If you divide the LEA behaviors in relationships and results what is the right level of focus in both categories? It seems both are needed in order to be effective.
A: (Tricia) We have done a few large-scale research studies on leadership patterns that support relationships compared with leadership patterns that support results. Our research shows what would be expected, that those leaders who are equally invested in behaviors that support both areas of focus are the most highly effective leaders. However, our research also shows that a very small percentage of leaders devote an equal amount of emphasis to each of these two sets of leadership behaviors. In some collaborative work that we did with Matt Lieberman, who is a social cognitive neuroscientist at UCLA, we learned that there are two neural pathways in all our brains that act almost like a seesaw. One neural pathway focuses on people and connection to people. The other neural pathway focuses on non-people-oriented ways of thinking. These two neural networks operate as a seesaw, when one neural network is active, the other is quieter. It appears that most people have a preference to use one of these neural networks more often than the other. And so, it was not surprising to Dr. Lieberman that our research showed a very small number appearing to use both neural networks in equal amounts. See some of MRG’s research on relationships and results here.
Q: There is an increasing expectation from leaders nowadays to be leadership coaches. Can you comment on that?
A: (Tricia) Yes, there is an increase in expectations from leaders to be coaches. Unfortunately, most of these expectations are not supported by in-depth coach training for the leaders. Also, this expectation rarely comes with time set aside for the leader to do the coaching. So, while some coaching techniques can be very helpful for leaders to gain a level of confidence and competence, in almost all cases, it is unrealistic to expect a leader, given all their other responsibilities, to be an effective leadership coach.
Q: How many organizations are paying attention to how to help leaders shift?
A: (Tricia) In my experience, I don’t see many organizations paying attention to helping leaders make the shift to a more connected way of leading. I think there was more attention paid to that during the pandemic, when there was a concerted effort to offer collaborative activities, both work related and more social, and to keep people connected, to check on people, and to just ensure that individuals and teams were OK. Now, in many organizations, there appears to be a growing impatience to get on with the ways of doing work. So, I think the patterns of culture connected cooperative leadership that we are seeing in our research, is more likely to do with the kind of leaders that people are gravitating to and find effective at this particular period in time than it has to do with organizations promoting this way of leading.