Exploring the impact of the pandemic and successive lockdowns on people, work and the practices of leadership

Dr Smita Tripathi is a lecturer in Leadership and Human Resource Studies. Her teaching on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes focuses on approaches to managing and developing people, as well as critical issues in leadership, governance, human resource management, organisational change and performance. She has previously collaborated on research projects exploring partnership working and the leadership and governance of Higher Education delivery in Further Education Colleges. She has conducted research on leadership, local strategic partnerships, enterprise and innovation and has been associated with the governance of numerous charities in the South West including Plymouth and District Racial Equality Council, Plymouth Multilingual Families Group, local Parent, Teachers and Friends Associations and the South Asian Society of Devon and Cornwall.

To find out more about Dr Tripathi’s research and work on leadership, please contact her via email

 

Context of crisis, pandemic and leadership

The experience of living and working during the pandemic and successive lockdowns will impact thinking on the theory and practice of leadership in future. Tragedy has touched families and organisations; people have lost loved ones, jobs, livelihoods and financial security. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for innovation, for blended, inclusive ways of working and for leadership that is more compassionate and empathetic as people and organisations have been confronted with obstacles and challenges. Many leaders in organisations have had to adopt a more collaborative leadership style, fostering greater consultation across executive teams and reporting lines, whilst also emphasising the importance of clear management communications in a rapidly evolving situation.

Dr Tripathi believes that the pandemic and other movements like Black Life Matters have prompted us to question the traditional heroic concept in leadership studies as it is no longer fit for purpose. She has already started investigating the shared, collaborative, team-led approaches in leadership practice with her current cohort of students as well as embarking on primary research with research collaborators. This includes Collaborative Leadership for Sustainability: Supporting the Greener NHS agenda ‘through the voices of Allied Health Professionals’ and the Role of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through collaboration and partnership in Zambia. Here she shares some thoughts about how leadership is conceptualised and practised in times of crisis and how this might inform the study and practice of leadership in future.


Fit for purpose?

The world is currently facing a number of significant crises over and above the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic: climate change, global terrorism, poverty and rising inequality. Whilst some of these challenges, such as the rise in inequality, have been significantly worsened by the pandemic, there is now a general consensus that people need to collaborate on the development responses to tackle these challenges. 

With a quick fix looking increasingly unlikely, solutions will need to be identified and implemented through multiple disciplines and strategies in the decades ahead. This will impact approaches to, and styles of, leadership as people reflect on the purpose of leadership, how effective leadership is enacted and how it can become more inclusive, especially in relation to marginalised groups. 


Rethinking leadership

Living and working during the pandemic, as the worlds of family, education, work and community have blended within the home environment, has caused us to rethink leadership. 

Leaders have had to work more collaboratively, encourage more cohesion across teams and to innovate in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Health, including mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing has warranted greater attention, becoming an area of concern for many leaders and line managers. With blurred work/home boundaries, research into leadership will need reframing, redesigning and reinvigorating in response to the changed realities.


Probing the new normal and the future of work

The ‘New Normal’ is currently evolving with on-going debate about what this normal will be. 

The pandemic has shown it will take time, resources and (definitely) leadership to respond to this normal. The pendulum is currently swinging to and fro, as the pandemic continues to impact our lives, livelihoods, health, economies, communities and society as a whole. Examples of good practice and innovative responses to the challenges of the past 18 months are emerging, especially with the implementation and adoption of digital solutions. Digital technology, and the provision of virtual access, has led to faster, more agile decision-making. Leaders have had to adapt to different kinds of challenges and stresses and develop greater resilience to take advantage of these opportunities. This has prompted me, with a colleague in the US, to explore research questions considering the ways technology is impacting employee wellbeing in the workplace and on the employee/employer relationship and how leaders can minimise the side effects of this. 

We now know that in times of crisis, and when faced with global challenges, there is a need to understand the context and practices of leadership more deeply. More research is needed to properly inform debate. It must include the voices that have been marginalised and ignored for too long. These need to be captured in future research. It is encouraging that conversations have already been initiated at many levels. More needs to be done. Researchers of leadership and strategy need to work together to demonstrate and effect positive change.


Post-pandemic leadership  

Organisations are adapting to establish news ways of working and operating. Leaders will need to be more creative and inclusive to survive (and thrive) as they navigate the challenges ahead. 

I would expect many to spend time rethinking and reflecting, to invite challenge and input from their employees and to reconsider their approach as knowledge and practice have struggled to keep pace with current developments, trends, facts and data. Expert opinions are constantly changing as new challenges are overcome. 

Leadership is an intersection of approaches and processes: on the one hand there are the more strategic, future-oriented, change-focussed people skills. These need to be complemented by managerial skills such as planning, budgeting, resourcing, coordinating and so on. Depending on where leaders are on their leadership journey, within the different organisational layers and context, they all need to balance which skills they use in their toolkit. Leaders may not and will not have all the answers, but handling complexity and uncertainty will become part and parcel of effective management practice.


Leadership is looking ahead while being more relational  

The way we work will continue to change. Leadership is emergent and contextual. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to recognize and work with individuals (and increasingly with teams) in their own sub-cultures. 

Navigating diversity and engaging with marginalized groups will continue to be key. There focus will need to be on what binds us and upon which we can build a strong foundation. I am hoping this may lead to some research on a topic close to my heart around improving minority ethnic groups’ access to and retention in higher education and postgraduate research. 

Leaders have to relate to themselves and the people around them. This can be a dynamic process. Leadership is about leading oneself - focussing on one’s own strengths and making improvements by incorporating skills and competencies. Leadership is also personal. Authentic leaders need to lead in a way that reflects their values and beliefs and not copy what they have seen elsewhere. This authenticity is even more important if remote working is going to become the norm for many in future. There is no formula for leadership; it is situated in personal narratives, values, motivators, belief systems and purpose – they all make it unique and effective. What works as effective leadership practice for an individual is unique to them.


Working with others

Leadership is working with others. 

Continued remote working will make this more challenging. Leaders will need to develop the skills to relate to, motivate, manage and lead colleagues and teams through technology platforms. A leader will have to consider how they can build their following in the virtual space. Leadership manifests itself in different ways; it could mean having overall responsibility and formally occupying a leadership role or being part of a team, with occasional opportunities for leading. 

Anyone can develop leadership skills which allows for more purposeful, meaningful, collaborative and situated analysis of issues and find opportunities to practise leadership in some way, whether it be based on knowledge, awareness or experience. It is imperative to make leadership responsive and curious so that perspectives and innovative ideas can inform relationships between leaders and their followers so others can be led and, in turn, lead others, making possible a chain of leadership.


Mapping the future

Whilst I have indicated that there are lots of uncertainties ahead, I can see some trends emerging, even now. 

 Leaders will need to harness viewpoints around diversity and recognise the significance of incorporating multifaceted voices and ideas to generate innovative, sustainable solutions and collaborative team working. This is true now more than ever before. It will be important in the South West as our economy’s exposure to sectors like tourism and hospitality has left us particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Much more research is needed on how leadership can aid in empowering communities and enable creative enterprise to develop impactful responses in solving these challenges. I hope to expand upon this through the Centre for Coastal Communities in their projects around blue urbanism. In particular, I am interested in better understanding the needs of community and key stakeholders for collaborative partnership and community engagement in recovery, resilience and economic revitalisation.


Young blood

One development I think we can guarantee is that new leaders are emerging from the pandemic and other crises I have mentioned

Look at the leadership Greta Thunberg has provided in the debate about climate change and the role of young people in this debate. Nowadays it is much easier for the younger generation to share their beliefs with like-minded people across the globe on social media platforms. Leaders are required to bring about meaningful and effective leadership through collaboration, compassion and collective efforts; the younger generation has demonstrated it is very adept at doing this.