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The world has changed, does leadership need to?

“I don't know what all the fuss is about...” said my CEO client in the travel business as the first coronavirus cases started to appear in Europe “…it's just like a different kind of flu”. Fast forward to today and the world looks very different. The travel industry is in crisis and return to normality looks like a long way off if ever.

How do you, as a leader, respond to events that are so far outside normal parameters? When uncertainty (not knowing what is going to happen) combines with ambiguity (not knowing how it is going to happen) what, if anything, needs to change?

“The world has changed but has leadership really changed?”

The pandemic is just one of many factors that make the life of the leader more complex and unpredictable: climate change is real but we cannot know when and where extremes will occur; #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have changed the way we think about fairness and equality; the pandemic has exposed the fallacy of global supply chains with no built in resilience. The world has changed but has leadership really changed?

What the Data Shows

For the last 20 years Zenger Folkman has been researching what differentiates leaders who deliver the best business results. In recent times 3 new competencies have emerged: “Makes Decisions”, “Takes risks” and “Values Diversity”.

Makes decisions

In difficult times the best leaders make decisions and continually move forward in the face of constant change, uncertainty and ambiguity. They do not wait for full information or clarity but recognise the need to act in a timely manner. They are set apart by the capacity to make effective decisions despite short timelines and pressure.

Takes Risks

At times like these, playing safe or playing not to lose rarely wins. Being unafraid to take the risks necessary to achieve goals and objectives, acting quickly on low risk, high potential opportunities, allows the leader to balance the risk and rewards that maximise returns and protect the organisation.

Values Diversity

Successful responses to the COVID-19 crisis were quick and the move from the office based centre to home working meant that leaders were forced to trust their people to know what to do. The best leaders have embraced the new ways of working, actively encouraging open discussion of problems and differences of opinion as well as focusing on building an inclusive climate of trust. Demonstrating active appreciation for those who think differently and come from different backgrounds they have been able to draw on the diverse perspectives and talents of others in responding to the crisis and accomplishing objectives.

Finding the right balance

In difficult times the temptation for the leader is to “double down” and work harder and faster. However, because of the pressures and uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, leaders are finding that they need to focus on the mental health and well-being of their people.

The data also shows that the best leaders know the importance of balancing “getting results” with care and concern for others’ needs. In the current context staying in touch with issues and concerns of your people has never been more important.

Science, in the form of research based data, points to newly emerging competencies that reflect the changing role of the leader, as well as the increased importance of well-established ways of leading. But what of our travel business CEO?

Science plus wisdom

Once it became clear that coronavirus is anything but the flu, they were quick to act. Using their mentor as a sounding board they focused on “not wasting a good crisis”. Securing additional funding from investors the company has accelerated their technology programme and proactively supported customers to secure increased market share for the future. Senior management took a larger pay cut than staff, visibly demonstrating their care and concern through willingness to make sacrifices for the future of the company.

Whilst the challenges are huge, the mood is optimistic and they are all working hard for the business to emerge from the pandemic fitter and stronger than ever.


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