Navigating the new normal: the role of leadership in overcoming the crisis

The Coronavirus pandemic is putting under the microscope the status quo of new and old leaders. In the first case you need to build a foundation of good leadership, in the second case, changes may need to be made to adapt the leadership to the new normal.

Only if a leader can create true followers, are they considered to be one. That is, people who follow them by choice and by conviction. Because of the pandemic, in the new normal, people were forced to come out of their comfort zone. Now that the health crisis is starting to leave room for the economic one, being able to count on good leadership means reviving the ‘motivating force’ that is needed to navigate out of the storm.


Now more than ever, importance is being placed on being able to put trust in the people around us, in companies and in institutions. How much trust is required of an employee when have been asked to return to work? Will it be safe to travel to and from home/work? Will they be at risk at work with their colleagues? The first aspect on which a company and its leaders must direct most of their attention is therefore the level of trust that exists with employees, with members but also with all stakeholders, customers, and suppliers. Building trust and building a positive work environment seems obvious however also exceedingly difficult. People look at their leaders carefully, observe their behaviour, scrutinize non-verbal language, want to know how they feel and what they think. They are constantly trying to find confirmation that they can be trusted.

It seems to be a fair thing to ask. A good leader creates resonant relationships based on trust and is aware of himself and his surroundings. This is the starting point in order to pick up valuable signs and interpret them correctly. Not doing so means restarting at a disadvantage and seriously jeopardizing the future of the company.


“Hope” acts as “an emotional magnet: it pushes people to move forward even when they are amid difficulties. A leader’s attitude of hope and optimism allows people to continue beyond the difficulties of the present to grasp the answers to the future. Hope unites people and helps us move in a coordinated way towards a desired end.” With these words Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee in their famous leadership studies, demonstrate how mindfulness, hope and compassion are key elements of good leadership while the entrepreneurial culture of many countries still ignores the importance of understanding these issues.

But what does it take to cultivate that kind of hope that leads to renewal and sustainable resonance? According to the three researchers, there are three things that need to be considered:

  • a leader must cultivate dreams and aspirations but without ever losing contact with those of the people around them, this helps to shape the image of the future that one would like to create.
  • a leader must be optimistic and believe in his own ability to govern change.
  • a leader must consider the future he wants to achieve as realistic and achievable.

Under these conditions, even bad news can give rise to a dream, it remains to be clarified how to inspire and motivate in practice people within an organization when performance is severely compromised by the pandemic both in the short and medium term.

Is it really useful to use valuable resources such as time and energy to create a resonant environment when problems continue to increase, and results are not seen?

Many managers believe it is best to avoid creating an ‘inspiring’ environment when things are going wrong. According to them, under these conditions what matters is to resolve operational issues as a priority and only later face any organizational ones.

In these circumstances, actions to reduce staff and costs, optimal sizing of human resources and other actions that aim to restore “order” to companies often become popular.

Actions like this that clearly do not generate resonance are typical of managers who, when there is dirty work to be done, are convinced that even a simple hint of the creation of resonance can be a distraction from the main objectives.

Yet when an environment is characterized by a strong dissonance as often happens when things go wrong, people do not perform particularly well.

So it’s precisely when things are difficult that good leaders find a way to deal with operational issues and performance issues without losing sight of the need to generate resonance.

For governments as well as for companies, reacting to the COVID-19 crisis with a “military” mentality and not being able to create an adequate level of internal resilience means giving up preparing for the future major challenges that will inevitably arise in the coming months. The US position on this, for example, has been rather explicit, comparing the pandemic to Pearl Harbour, to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and seeking a ‘casus belli’ in Chinese premeditation to the pandemic.


“Here we need the clinician, the scientist, the one we have denigrated for decades, the boring manager who organizes a capillary response, who coordinates, who looks at the data, who looks at science, perhaps makes difficult decisions not only for economic well-being or only for social well-being, but to find a compromise between these different imperatives. All of this has diminished with the cult of leadership that has intoxicated us and seduced us for the last thirty to forty years and now we pay the price” says Gianpiero Petriglieri (associate professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD and an expert on leadership and learning in the workplace) in a recent interview.

Maintaining an inadequate leadership style can now be dangerous, but that’s not all. Among astronauts, there is the saying “No problem is so serious that you can’t make it worse.”. Working in an environment hostile to life and in extreme conditions, astronauts cannot afford to make mistakes; they must also be able to react in the event of an accident in the suitable way. When you are in space, a single wrong decision in a time of crisis could make the situation much worse.

In the face of an exceptional crisis like the current one, all aspects of leadership must be considered in order to ensure the company a way out. The delicate relationship between different personality types, different levels of skill sets and the quality of decision making, is one of them. In the US, for example, there is a predominant culture of extroversion. In Asia it’s the other way around. “The difference is staggering” writes Michael Harris Bond, a cultural psychologist, “ Americans emphasize sociability and give importance to attributes that make interpersonal relationships simple and joyful. Instead, the Chinese emphasize deeper attributes, focusing on life’s accomplishments and moral virtues”. Many studies have sought to shed light on the relationship between leadership styles and personality. Susan Cain, for example, author of the bestseller ”Quiet” delves broadly into the subject. To avoid having a leadership affected negatively by these aspects, it is important to be informed of their existence.

A famous Chinese saying reminds us that: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know” (Laozi, Genesis of Daodejing). Two Cornell University researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, described cognitive bias in 1999 that put into relation actual skills and the perception of one’s skills. The Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us that those who are less competent on a subject tend not to realize their incompetence on the contrary, believe instead that they know everything, thereby having great self-confidence.


 Dunning Kruger effect

According to this model there are two times when the subject can have a high degree of confidence in their skills. The first coincides with an extremely low level of actual competence, the second with an extremely high level of actual competence.

Since it is easier to be very incompetent than in the contrary, it is also more common for high levels of confidence in one’s skills to be present in people who are ill-prepared to make decisions. In the 5th century BC. Socrates, after extensive studies and reasoning came to the well-known conclusion: “I know I do not know”. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that the exact opposite, “I don’t know that I don’t know” is just as popular. When leaders stop questioning their knowledge, they can come to dangerously wrong conclusions, make rash decisions, and do more harm than there already is. At such a historical moment of crisis, it is essential to analyse the level of expertise available to the company’s top management. To avoid exposing the company to further damage, it must adapt quickly, before planning any action for the future.

In an increasingly polarised world, it seems as if people are becoming more convinced of their own beliefs and less willing to contemplate other points of view. But could this be to the detriment of our intelligence? A recent study shows how intellectual humility can help leaders make progress and better choices.


Over the past 10 years the practice of having Top Managers seated on more than one board has lost credibility. The lack of focus weakens the leadership in favour of a dubious flexibility that risks not benefiting anyone. Many companies have suffered for this, some have failed even before the crisis. Since a failure is only such if nothing is learned from them in terms of lessons, perhaps the time has come to re-educate leadership.

There are many forces at stake in how the crisis will be dealt with in the coming months. There is a lot of ”background noise” due to, for example, heated debates on ESM (European Stability Mechanism) regarding how governments and Europe intend to freeze the harmful effects of COVID-19 and revive the economy, Eurobond, public debt and national measures. The risk of losing sight of the actual situation of your company is very high. For those who are at the helm, it is not permissible to lose sight of the “here and now”. This means, for example, when problems emerge whilst activities resume, not evading going into detail and maintain as objective and neutral a vision as possible in evaluating them. In order to give a new shape to the future, finding the right balance between the various levers that affect the company by enhancing the leadership style according to the context is therefore the imperative of the moment.


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