Leadership | Leadership during Covid-19
This piece is part of a series on Leadership by members of the broader ISD community. In this post, ISD Non-resident Air Force Fellow, Major Kasie Helland, reflects on effective leadership across organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
2020 certainly brought unanticipated challenges for leaders, obstacles most never believed they would encounter.
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to observe various leadership teams within the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Georgetown University weave their way and lead teams through the COVID-19 pandemic. While it seems as though very little has been constant, good leadership fundamentals held true even through a pandemic. Successful leaders continued to empower and engage their staff, and adapt to the situations they faced.
Good leaders trust and empower their staff to make decisions and take calculated risk to accomplish their mission. They understand the positive impact of empowering their team. Without trust in one’s staff, leaders create a bottleneck and progress may stagnate if they have too many decisions to make. By empowering teams, they can act on a leader’s intentions and continue to meet goals without having to ask for the boss’ input on every small item. Trust and empowerment also foster creativity, allowing action officers who best understand the problem to develop creative solutions their supervisor may not conceive. At the end of the day, the most important aspect is not whether the interaction is in-person or virtual, but that the leader establishes a trusting and empowering environment.
Good leaders also adapt and teach their staff how to flex. They not only recognize the importance of agility when necessary, but also display it to their staff, and impress it upon their employees. Meetings, projects, and policy may not always go according to plan. Thus, good leaders are willing to adapt in order to overcome challenges and foster a successful environment. Flexible and adaptive leadership is important when unusual events disrupt the work — which is exactly what the pandemic did.
Once COVID-19 restrictions were in full-effect, leaders and teams had to figure out how to continue to collaborate while working from home. Successful leaders adapted to virtual staff meetings and created welcoming virtual office environments through a new style of engagement. Without in-person contact, a supervisor is not able to make the rounds in the office. However, with a little more planning, a leader is still able to virtually meet with their employees on a routine or ad hoc basis.
Finally, good leaders engage with their staff. These leaders were engaged before the pandemic and continued to engage under COVID-19 restrictions. Engagement shows a leader cares about their employees and what their staff is working. Engaging leaders help connect and focus their team on their unit’s purpose and vision, and convey their employees’ work holds value and is important to the success of the unit. Engagement may also mean a leader takes action with another office on behalf of their unit to advance a project, promote a policy, or advocate for an employee’s personal need. Engagement may have shifted during the pandemic from in-person discussions to emails, texts, phone calls, and/or video calls, but an engaged leader still helps guide and mentor employees, ensures they feel valued, and creates momentum moving forward.
COVID-19 stopped breakroom birthday festivities with staff, but virtual meetings opened opportunities to connect with teams in a whole new dimension. Virtual meetings brought supervisors into the homes of their employees. They allowed leaders to see a unique piece of art hanging on the wall from a deployment, sports team memorabilia from the place their employee calls home, and drawings from their five-year old child. These instances have given leaders a more holistic perspective of their employees.
Through virtual meetings, an employee’s family is also now more real to their leader. Spouses and children represent more than a two-minute discussion in the office hallway about a weekend little league game or a picture on a cubicle wall. Leaders have experienced the two-year old crawl up on their mom’s lap during a meeting or the ten-year old walk in to ask their dad for help on their homework. While COVID-19 has kept teams physically apart, virtual platforms have made teammates’ lives more real to one another; it has humanized each individual and provided new insight to our personal lives. Engaged, successful leaders have taken note of this, commented on the background art, talked with the ten-year old, and built closer relationships with their teams all through virtual platforms.
I can personally attest to this as I started with a new government department in the middle of the pandemic. Yet, over the past nine months, I have virtually connected with my colleagues and superiors in ways I would not have initially imagined, which is a testament to the unit’s engaged leadership. I have seen teammates’ rescue dogs playing in the background, received a virtual tour of a newly renovated kitchen, and more. Even though I’ve only met these individuals a handful of times in person, I know them in a very different way than prior office colleagues.
Back to normal / moving forward: We have seen how successful leaders build a trusting and empowering environment, adapt as changes and challenges emerge, and engage with their teams. Recognizing these pillars of good leadership have endured throughout the pandemic, what happens now? The common saying over the past year has been, “getting back to normal.” However, perhaps we are looking at this in the wrong light.
“Getting back to normal” with everyone in the office, Monday through Friday, just for the sake of returning to the status quo means we have not learned and grown from the experience. Rather, as the environment slowly opens back up, successful leaders will think about “moving forward” with their organizations. They will engage with their staff, empower them to critically analyze lessons from the past year, and adapt to a new style which improves the office’s environment, efficiency, and effectiveness. In sum, they will “keep the best and ditch the rest.”*
Kasie Helland is an active duty member in the United States Air Force, and is currently completing a fellowship with the State Department and Georgetown University.
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.
*The author would like to thank J. William DeMarco, an instructor at Air University, for his insights on May 3, 2021 which helped inform this piece.
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