Leadership Lessons from 2020

2020 has given us a pandemic, natural disasters and civil unrest. It’s also given us some important lessons. During challenging times like these, we learn why leadership is essential and what success truly requires of us.

Lesson One: We can move faster than we think.

The work-from-home transition provides the perfect example of how quickly we can move when we really need to. Remote work was already gaining popularity before the pandemic, but if you asked a business leader how long it would take to move to more-or-less fully remote workforce, the answers would have been measured in years. Then the pandemic hit, and workforces around the world found ways to switch to remote work practically overnight. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.

But what happens when we’re not in crisis mode? The need for agility might not be as pressing, but it never goes away. Things are always changing as new technology emerges, competitors come onto the scene, and the cultural and political landscape shifts. Leaders who are flexible enough to rapidly pivot are the ones who can thrive no matter what, in good times and bad.

Lesson Two: Teamwork does not require togetherness.

Before the pandemic, when you thought of teamwork, you probably visualized a group of people working together in a meeting room, sharing ideas, sharing coffee and donuts, and sharing space. The pandemic has shown us that teamwork is essential, but actual physical togetherness isn’t a requirement.

We’ve had to find new ways of working together, often relying on video conferencing and collaboration software. The transition hasn’t devalued teamwork, however. If anything, it’s highlighted teamwork’s importance. When working together is more complicated, true cooperation becomes even more essential.

Lesson Three: We must be purposeful about human connection.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the pandemic has been stressful.

According to the CDC, the pandemic has contributed to considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions among U.S. adults. In late June, 40% of U.S. adults said they were struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, with 31% reporting anxiety and/or depression, 13% saying that they had started or increased substance use and 11% reporting that they had seriously considered suicide.

There may be many causes for these increases, including job loss, shifts in work and school schedules, dealing with being sick or having friends and family who become sick and worrying about the possibility of illness. For many, isolation has been another major source of mental health deterioration. As people complied with stay-at-home orders, they started to miss the personal interactions that they used to take for granted. Personal connections are still possible, though; we just need to be more purposeful about them.

Even before the pandemic, it was widely accepted that employers could not ignore the human side of their workforce, and wellness programs that took a holistic approach to employee wellbeing were increasingly common. The pandemic has emphasized the need for this. Personal connections are essential for mental wellness, and right now, one of the most important things we can do is to reach out to see how a member of our team is really doing.

Lesson Four: Never assume your market is bulletproof.

Back in 2019, no one thought movie theaters could be facing bankruptcy in only a year, but according to Bloomberg, that may be what’s happening now. Many other industries – including travel, restaurants, bars and gyms, just to name a few – have also faced unexpected hardships this year.

The pandemic hasn’t been the only challenge this year, either. We’ve also seen civil unrest, natural disasters and an increase in devastating ransomware attacks. Many people are hoping that 2021 will bring easier times, but the truth is that we don’t know what the future has in store for us.

As this Harvard Business Review article on leadership lessons from COVID field hospitals states, sometimes we need to publicly acknowledge uncertainty. When faced with unprecedented circumstances, we cannot possibly know exactly what will happen next or what steps are needed. By accepting this uncertainty, we can begin the search for new solutions.

As business leaders, we can never assume that favorable conditions will last forever, and we must always have our fallback position ready. To achieve true resilience, we need to acknowledge and plan for a wide-range of what-if scenarios. We also need to strengthen our finances and develop business response plans, so we are ready for whatever comes next.

Looking Forward

As 2020 finally draws to a close, we want you to know that we are here for you and we appreciate your unwavering support and partnership. My hope is that our people, our companies and our industry emerge from 2020 stronger than ever. Happy New Year!