• 14 Apr 2020
  • SBS-ED
  • 6Min

6 leadership qualities that matter during a pandemic

6 leadership qualities that matter during a pandemic

As the novel COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, this past week saw numerous op-eds in the United States’ media questioning the ability of President Donald Trump’s administration.

In fact, The New York Times published a piece criticising Trump’s lack of management skills in being able to contain the pandemic, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other public health experts. The unprecedented pandemic is calling for next-level leadership qualities. Right now, the public is looking for decisive action and reassurance.

In critical moments like these, many business leaders have stepped up, filling the national leadership void that politicians once claimed as their own. Instead of waiting for government directives, myriad businesses – in South Africa as well as the rest of the world – have instituted work-from-home policies, temporary shutdowns or altered in-store and in-office services.

A crisis often forces executive leadership to forego conventional operations. As the COVID-19 pandemic is a global concern, it requires a networked response that combines communication, trust and proximity, say CEO and retired general Stan McChrystal and former US Navy SEAL Chris Fussell. Here are six ways leaders can display good leadership qualities during the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritise a team’s wellbeing, client-centricity and business continuity:

6 leadership qualities that matter during stressful times:

  • Communication

Although working remotely has been an option for many people for a while now, coordinating projects and other operations around individuals that are geographically dispersed can be tricky.

While software such as Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Monday.com and Slack allow people to stay connected, there’s nothing quite like doing a quick office poll or getting ideas over a morning cup of coffee. Without these interactions, it’s important for leaders to regularly and effectively communicate with the organisation, advises CNN Business.

To ensure the transition from office to remote work is smooth, share information and decisions on adaptable processes and behaviours before the shift takes place. Then ensure there are daily check-ins via a stipulated shared communication platform like Microsoft Teams.

  • Setting achievable goals

Setting goals is nothing new. However, as COVID-19 affects the ways in which businesses operate, it’s important that leaders are honest about what is achievable in the coming weeks or months in order to manage stress.

This may mean that the huge conference a team has been planning might need to be conducted via video instead or that a collaborative project may need a longer timeline in order for everyone involved to be consulted, all of which could leave employees feeling unmotivated or confused.

By consistently setting measurable and achievable goals for a team or organisation, a leader sets an example for their employees, says AboutLeaders.

  • Making adjustments when you can

Amid the chaos, there have been some beautiful examples of communities coming together. The rallying cry to support the small business sector in South Africa has been particularly heart-warming, with numerous influential people publicly choosing to buy local.

Many small businesses, in turn, are adjusting their offerings to be more online and delivery focused. Several restaurants are now making meals for home delivery to adapt to the current plea for social distancing.  They’re also using typical South African humour to brighten people’s days.

For example, Sweet Lionheart – a cake shop in Cape Town – is making #socialdistancing cakes iced with messages like ‘be wise, sanitise’ to give loved ones something to smile about. The ability to adapt and spot opportunities to support the community are defining leadership qualities.

  • Managing expectations

As with any crisis, there are many constantly changing variables. COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan City in China’s Hubei province, is now more of a threat to Western countries such as the US and Italy. Both these countries failed to act quickly in the face of a looming pandemic.

In South Africa, however, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet moved quickly to enforce international best practices for tackling the pandemic – but only where it made sense in the context of a country that has a large economic disparity, reports the Daily Maverick.

In addition, the government is also actively engaged with the private sector on ways to relieve the pressures on the economy and healthcare systems. By leading with confidence and positivity, the president and his health minister have conveyed the seriousness and potential impact of the crisis.

  • Sustaining productivity by being positive

We’ve previously mentioned how the most successful leaders earn respect by involving everyone in the process before coming to a key decision.

One way of doing this is by putting people closer to the problem – and remaining positive in critical situations. Forbes suggests soliciting advice or brainstorming together, which can even be done via a Skype or Zoom call when people are working remotely. A leader’s positivity will rub off on their team, potentially influencing their productivity and willingness to problem-solve.

  • Managing stress and mental health

How do you handle stress and pressure?

Leaders should first ask themselves this and then ask their teams. Everyone handles anxiety in a different way and it’s important to be cognisant of this – especially when facing a pervasive pandemic.

Leaders can play a significant role in helping their team members deal with stress by being empathetic and understanding, allowing time for relaxation and meditation, and facilitating flexible practices – like the option to work from home.

It’s imperative those at the top put their people’s wellbeing first, which could also mean training on best COVID-19 safety protocols, the provision of protective clothing and equipment, and stringent hygiene measures.  Maintaining a calm, in-control demeanor will go a long way to making a team feel reassured.


Enrol now in USB-ED’s Executive Development Programme (EDP), if you are interested in becoming a leader that makes a difference. The course will prepare senior leadership with the management skills to guide their organisation and employees through the most turbulent of times.

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