Leadership in the Pandemic

Anyone can lead when plans are working. The best lead when plans fall apart.

Robin Sharma

Leaders are needed most in times of crisis. It’s also in times of crisis that the greatest leaders emerge. Conditions such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic reveal people who are resilient, who not only function under pressure but flourish in their ability to guide and support others. What defines such a leader? What qualities benefit leaders when facing a crisis? To answer these questions, we’ve taken a look at leadership in the pandemic, and summarized which competencies have become particularly important for leading organizations, teams, and oneself.

Leading Organizations

Risk Taking

To guess is cheap. To guess wrong is expensive.


Risk-taking is a part of every leader’s job description. They decide on overall brand and communication strategies, approve new products and services, hire new employees and oversee development and promotion. Among these decisions, leaders bear the burden of balancing risk and reward, with a heavy focus on not missing opportunities.

In a crisis, particularly when the crisis is health-related, risk-taking looks a little different. Opportunities must be seen in light of their potential costs, and in a pandemic the cost may be the safety and security of staff, clients, and other stakeholders. For this reason, risk-taking skills are incredibly important for leaders during crisis management. Some risks should be taken, others must be mitigated. It’s up to the leader to guide their organization through this process in a way that ensures they maintain the trust and support of their followers.

Here are a few practical risk-taking tips you can use as a leader, especially during the pandemic:

  • Stay informed. Take risks only after you have done your due diligence and background research. This will not only help you make better decisions but will also allow you to defend those risks and give a rationale if your decisions are challenged.
  • Be prepared. Before you take risks it’s important to be aware of every possible outcome. Understand both the best and worst-case scenarios, and make sure that you are equipped to handle either.
  • Communicate with followers. When taking a risk that will impact your team, ensure you communicate when (and how) you intend to take a risk, why that risk is necessary, and how you are prepared to guide and protect your organization through the outcomes. Where appropriate, ask for follower input and take these comments into consideration.


In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Theodore Roosevelt

One of the quickest responses to the COVID-19 pandemic was made by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. On March 11th, 2020, Silver suspended the professional basketball league for the remainder of the season, far before anyone else had implemented a pandemic response.[1] At the time of his decision, there was no precedent. Silver made the first call to change his industry in response to the pandemic, and he made this call to protect the health and wellbeing of individuals across the NBA. This move took incredible courage and decisiveness. In times of crisis, leaders are not only required to stand strong, they are also required to make tough decisions on behalf of others.

Leaders are faced with the task of making tough calls every day. When a leader makes a firm decision, it allows the organization to set a course and make progress toward goals. If, on the other hand, a leader is indecisive, it is unlikely or even impossible for progress to be made. Given that the world is always changing, leaders must be prepared to act and react on behalf of their teams to keep their organization moving forward.

Practical tips for decisiveness look very similar to those offered above. The reason for this is that all risk taking involves decisions, even though not all decisions involve risk. In the context of the pandemic, however, most decisions do involve a significant element of medical, social, or business risk. To make these decisions well, ensure that you are properly informed and prepared for all possible outcomes. For decisions that do not involve risks, make your call based on the information available, recognizing that plans may change as the situation changes. That’s okay. It’s better to have a plan that can be adjusted than to have no plan at all.

Leading Teams


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Communication is an essential skill, particularly for leading teams. It ensures goals are aligned and responsibilities are understood. It allows progress to be reported and issues to be raised. Essentially, communication allows multiple individuals to function as a team, making it critical in light of the pandemic restrictions. In an unprecedented situation such as the outbreak of COVID-19, leaders are in a unique position to provide information to others as both the decision-makers and the ones organizing the work of their employees. It is therefore important that leaders communicate early and often. Not all news will be good news, but it’s better for employees to know than to wonder.

Here are a few tips for communication, especially when sharing sensitive or difficult content:

  • Be clear and concise. It is better to communicate a message briefly than to overwhelm others with a large amount of information at once. This will ensure the most important points are immediately understood, while the details can be clarified as needed.
  • Make it accessible. Ensuring communications are easy to access will increase the probability that your followers not only hear, but listen.
  • Communicate often. Establishing a pattern of regular communication builds trust and maintains open, ongoing relationships with others.
  • Be professional. Particularly in times of turmoil, followers look to their leaders for strength. Use your attire, posture, and tone to help to portray confidence and composure, especially in times of high stress.

Interpersonal Relations

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

 Interpersonal relations refers to a leader’s ability to relate to others in an outgoing, friendly, warm, and personable manner in order to establish and maintain effective relationships. This has become both incredibly important, and incredibly difficult in light of the pandemic. As of June 2020, 62% of American employees were working from home. [2] Since 2010, the amount of people who work remotely at least one day a week has grown 400% [3]. This shift to remote work makes it challenging for leaders to foster teamwork and provide support and recognition. In addition, many employees indicate they would prefer to continue some blend of working from home and in-office in the future.[4] In fact, 99% of people say that if they could, they would would choose to work remotely, at least part-time, for the rest of their careers [5]. For this reason, interpersonal competencies have become incredibly important for leadership in the pandemic and will remain important in the new work environments left in its wake.

Here are a few tips for leaders looking to maintain interpersonal relationships in light of the pandemic:

  • Have regular team meetings. Set up a weekly, synchronous calls for your entire team on the platform of your choice. This does not need to be a long meeting; it can be 10-20 minutes in which everyone gives an update on what they’re working on. The goal of these meetings should be to foster a sense of teamwork, unity, and connection. Larger groups can check-in once a month, while smaller, more specialized meetings happen on a weekly basis.
  • Build small talk into your meetings. A downfall of virtual meetings is that little conversation occurs before and after meetings when people used to trickle in or hang around. Instead, take a few minutes to build ice-breaker questions into the start of your meeting. As a leader you set the tone for these conversations, signaling that it’s okay to make a joke, inquire about someone’s life outside of work, or share something personal that may not be related to the purpose of the meeting.
  • Set up one-on-ones. Ensure that everyone in your organization has regular check-ins with a manager, supervisor, or other leader. This will help each employee feel supported and make sure no one slips through the cracks.
  • Make yourself accessible. Encourage followers to reach out to you if they have questions or would like to talk. Emphasize that this is not only appropriate, but welcome.
  • Maintain your company’s culture. Depending on your company’s culture, you may wish to find alternative ways to replace socials, team building activities, or other events. Consider socially distanced options where possible (e.g., outdoor picnics, or pick-up/drop-off/mailing small tokens of appreciation). Online options are also available, such as informal zoom calls, virtual lunch-and-learns, or games/activities (e.g., escape rooms, movies/videos, or online games).


Good leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge.

Simon Sinek

In addition to fostering interpersonal relations, sensitivity is an important competency for leadership in the pandemic. Sensitivity refers to a leader’s ability to demonstrate supportive, considerate, and caring attitudes toward the needs, concerns, moods, agendas, interests, and aspirations of others. These needs have grown significantly since the start of the pandemic. A few years ago, a survey done by the Angus Reid Institute polled Canadians on their greatest fears and found the top five to be death and illness, financial instability, bad/dangerous/dishonest people, harm to love ones, and the government.[6] Between politics and the pandemic, it seems 2020 has left none of these fears untouched. Polls conducted in July showed that 53% of American adults reported their mental health had been negatively impacted by worry and stress over COVID-19.[7] These worries include everything from the health and safety of loved ones, to household financial stability. While good leaders should maintain high expectations, they must also be sensitive to and supportive of their team members’ needs.

Here are a few practical tips for leaders looking to support their team, while still getting things done:

  • Listen first. One of the best ways to show sensitivity is to ask people how they are doing and genuinely listen to how they answer. Even if you are unable to change an employee’s situation, knowing that they have a leader who cares will boost their ability and motivation to do their best for you and the organization.
  • Be considerate. While there are some responsibilities or deadlines that may need to be set in stone, be as flexible as possible. Let your team know that you will work with them as needed, and that they should not hesitate to communicate these needs with you.
  • Recognize the role of privilege. Due to the changing work environment, personal privilege has made its way into the workplace, largely via differences in work-from-home environments. Some people may not have a spacious, well-lit, quiet, or otherwise ergonomic workspace. Others have children, parents, or spouses living at home with them. Some may not have access to quality digital devices, internet, or other technical materials. All of these differences add up to significantly differentiate those who are privileged from those who are less-privileged. While this may not be something you can change, it is important to be aware of these considerations and provide support to employees on a case-by-case basis. 

Leading Yourself


Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.

Jim Rohn

Self-discipline is the ability to resist impulse, maintain focus, and see a project through to completion. Studies have shown that our minds wander 47% of the time, meaning that we spend nearly half of our workday not entirely focused on the task at hand.[8] Not surprisingly, the conditions of the pandemic have amplified this effect. For many, home may not be a productive workspace. These physical and mental distractions impact employees and leaders alike, requiring individuals to be more self-disciplined than ever before.

Here are a few practical tips you can use to help you improve and maintain self-discipline:

  • Reduce distractions. This might look like removing a device from your work environment or setting rules about which emails or social media you can and cannot check during office hours. However, reducing distractions may also mean cleaning up your workspace, setting a schedule for coffee breaks and snacks, putting a pet in a crate, or blocking out white noise with mindful music. Maximize the things that improve your focus, minimize the things that don’t. 
  • Create accountability. Set up regular meetings or send quick emails to let your supervisors and direct reports know what your goals for the week/day are. This will help you stay focused and accomplish the tasks you set out to do.


Independence isn’t doing your own thing, it’s doing the right thing on your own.

Kim John Payne

In the context of leadership, ‘independence’ refers to the ability to be self-starting and work apart from others when necessary. The pandemic has required everyone to work apart from others, at least in one way or another. Some are working entirely from home; others are working in restricted office spaces with social distancing protocols. Leaders, however, often find themselves working apart from others by nature of their position. As they say, “It’s lonely at the top.” For this reason, strong leaders need to be able to not only function but thrive on independence. Leaders must be self-starting when it comes to both their work and their role as a leader during a difficult time. In the pandemic, independence is especially helpful for leaders as they take risks, make decisions, and maintain self-discipline.

Here are a few practical tips for improving your independence as a leader:

  • Build capability. To work independently you must be proficient on your own. Make sure you are well-informed, well-trained, and experienced in the areas in which you are leading. Continue to make efforts to learn things that will support you in your role and industry. This will also help you build confidence along the way.
  • Build confidence. To stand alone you must believe in your own ability to be successful. Take time to reflect on what you do well, both as an employee and as a leader. Take positive feedback from others gracefully and thoughtfully and remind yourself of your own skills and accomplishments.
  • Surround yourself with people you trust. Even the Queen has advisors, and Olympic athletes have trainers. While leaders largely work on their own, you will be more effective if you have others you can rely on for honest feedback and input. Establish strong connections with other leaders or high performers and work with coaches or consultants as needed.

Work/Life Balance

The key is not to prioritize your schedule, it’s to schedule your priorities.

Stephen Covey

Finally, strong leaders must have a good work/life balance. ‘Work/life balance’ refers to a person’s ability to maintain a healthy and productive balance between work responsibilities and life outside of work. This competency has become especially salient throughout the pandemic, when the line between ‘work’ and ‘home’ is easily blurred. It is also especially important for leaders, because their habits will set the example for appropriate work/life balance among followers.

Based on research done at Harvard University, here are a few quick tips for how you can establish work/life balance at home during a pandemic:[9]

  • Manage technology. While it may not always be possible to turn off your phone, set routines for when you are “at work,” and when you are “at home.” The temptation to send one more email, or complete one more task will be much stronger when your work takes place at home. Create boundaries for the times when you are available and when others can expect that you will not respond.  
  • Manage space. One of the easiest ways to set boundaries between work and home is to designate a particular space for work. This might be an office, a desk, or even just one side of the table. Not only does this provide you room to work, but gives you a space to “walk away from” when the work day is done.
  • Create rules. Working from home means that many employees juggle the responsibilities of marriage, parenthood, caregiving, shared living arrangements, and other interpersonal relations. Set clear rules with others in your space about when it’s okay to interrupt, and when you need quiet, focused time. In addition to rules, create routines such as mutual coffee breaks or lunch hours with those in your household. This will help you share your workday with others while establishing respectful work etiquette at home.

Looking for More?

If you’re looking to develop your leadership competencies during the pandemic, check out SIGMA’s Leadership Skills Profile – Revised. This personality-based assessment will help you identify your strengths and highlight opportunities for growth. We also provide individual and group coaching, custom consulting, and succession planning services. To learn more about our solutions and how SIGMA can help your leadership team through the pandemic, contact us directly for more information.


[1] Kerrissey, M. J., & Edmondson, A. C. (April 13, 2020). What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic.

[2] Wong, M. (June 29, 2020). Stanford research provides a snapshot of a new working-from-home economy. Stanford NEWS. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2020/06/29/snapshot-new-working-home-economy/.

[3] GetApp. (January 23, 2020). GetApp Unveils Results of Workforce Trends Study, Uncovering Shifts in Remote Work, Privacy and AI SMB Perceptions. BusinessWire. Retrieved from https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200122005406/en/.

[4] Gash, C. (October 7, 2020). Moving beyond remote: Workplace transformation in the wake of Covid-19. Slack. Retrieved from https://slack.com/intl/en-ca/blog/collaboration/workplace-transformation-in-the-wake-of-covid-19.

[5] Buffer. (2019). State of Remote Work. Buffer. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2019.

[6] Angus Reid Institute (ARI). (October 30, 2017). NA. ARI. Retrieved from http://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Fears.png.

[7] Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., Munana, C., & Chidambaram, P. (August 21, 2020). The Implications for Covid-19 on Mental Health and Substance Use. KFF. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.

[8] Killingsworth, M.A., & Gilbert D.T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Journal of Science, 330 (6006): 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439.

[9] Groysberg, B., & Abrahams, R. (March 2014). Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life. HBR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/03/manage-your-work-manage-your-life.