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In 2020 we talked to more than 500 leaders. I took the time to go through my notes again and derived 8 leadership lessons from a turbulent time.

Conversations with 500 Leaders

When the lockdown broke loose, organizations were facing many problems at that time: they had to organize for massive telework, review all processes, manage the health and safety issues for those who continued working, deal with massive uncertainty amongst customers and employees.

One of the biggest challenges though was to preserve the connection of the different stakeholders with the purpose of the organization. And to pursue the purpose, organizations had to change rapidly.

End of March 2020, Otolith launched a rapid intervention program to help leaders cope with the situation. Next to that, we developed 12 principles on how to deploy telework, based on scientific research and on years of experience in building flexible work arrangements. And we have worked with these leaders to build contexts that provided the right level of support and steering.

The New Abnormal

If we go back to the early days of the first lockdown, we might remember a desolate situation. The streets were empty as people had to stay indoors. It was like people were behaving fast and in slow motion at the same time. The phrase “social distance” was prominently present. Suddenly we saw people as potential sources of contagion.  Many parents needed to combine the care for their children with working from home. Many but not all organizations could shift towards telework. Some did so for the first time. And those who had experience with telework had to scale up from 1 or 2 days to almost 5 days a week. Some organizations are still in that regime today and some people did not come back to the office ever since.

This was not the new normal. It was the new abnormal. But very often the situation was glorified as the desirable future. Some organizations have announced never to go back to the pre-COVID period. Let’s never forget the zoom sessions with crying children in the background, with the entire family working in the same living room. Let’s not forget the difficulties there were to bring teams together. Let’s not forget the challenge for some to cope with a fragmented work environment.

At that time people had no idea how long the lockdown would take. In Belgium, it took until May to have some more flexibility and in July the situation was back to “normal”. With hindsight, we can now say that this return to normal was problematic. It brought us a second wave, with a renewed obligation to work from home and a lack of perspective.

The Leadership Lessons

All of this poses challenges for leaders in organizations. But here is the most important lesson of all:

Lesson 1: Managers had to do what they were supposed to do all along, but it was more important and more difficult.

Many leaders took it upon themselves to keep things going. They were organizing daily meetings, weekly social gatherings, check-ins, huddles, debriefings, feedback sessions, … It was simply draining. Many leaders thought that it was up to them to organize everything as everybody was isolated at home.

It took some time before leaders realized that this was impossible to maintain. More, they saw that people got more tired and that their efforts did not have a big impact. As I wrote in my book on Sustainable Leadership, leaders must focus on values, progress and be present during a crisis. The latter of the three was massively activated. But the risk was that in order to manage the crisis, leaders forgot to focus on the other two.

Indeed, many leaders reported that they were reluctant to focus on progress and on values. They asked themselves how they could demand initiatives when people were at home and could not go out to visit customers, service people, … That brings us to the second leadership lesson.

Lesson 2: The biggest mistake a leader can make is to stop expecting progress.

2020 could have been the lost year. And in terms of growth and profitability, it was for many organizations. But it can also be a lost year psychologically. Many organizations used the COVID-crisis to rethink their processes, their service offering, etc. They thought of the resilience of their organization and its people. They thought about getting out of the mess in a better shape. And so, instead of focusing on organizing the social side of the business, they should have focused on creating future value.
By actively looking for new business models, leaders have been building a different future. An example is how the catering industry switched to take away. Or what to think about competitors working together like Sanofi producing vaccines for Pfizer. What about Delhaize working with Colruyt or with Decathlon? Leaders were looking for new ways of offering value.
There’s a silver lining to all of this: leaders who have a forward looking perspective generate trust. By focusing on the future and on building resilience, leaders can give exactly that what was damaged due to COVID. Trust is what people need to perform. And that brings us to the third of the leadership lessons.

Lesson 3: The single most important output of leadership is trust

The trustworthiness of a leader is a result of the (perceived) competence, loyalty, and integrity. During the lockdown, it was actually difficult to be trustworthy. Leaders had to meander between the interest of the people, customers, and the organization. Some organizations really destroyed trust within the teams by installing unnecessary control mechanisms. Think of the obligation to keep the computer active to prove presence. Or think of the demand to log activity, or to announce deliverables before working at home. The only way to avoid the erosion of trust in a fragmented and flexible work organization is to focus on contribution to results, and not on presence or obedience.

Edelman published an extra trust barometer showing that organizations were seen as one of the most reliable sources of information. In its 2021 barometer, the institute reported a decrease of trust in the US and China. Edelman refers to the infodemic, indicating the distrust that has been caused by bad information management. Business seems to be the most trusted institution today.

Lesson 4: Leaders need to focus on effort

The focus on progress could lead to a one-sided approach, a blind meritocracy. As the context in the COVID-period is less structured, it could be that the efforts that are needed to get results remain unnoticed. We know what happens when numeric results are dominant; we see strange behavior. We know what happens when there is no attention for efforts, people feel unappreciated. But it’s not easy to assess the efforts of people when they work remotely. So leaders need to adopt practices of empathy and deep listening.

Lesson 5: Leaders need to adopt practices of empathy and deep listening

The only chance to be successful leaders have is when they are able to capture the needs of people, respond to them and integrate them into their leadership approach. For that leaders need to be empathic. I am not referring to the emotional version of empathy but to the cognitive version. Understanding what people need, what the levers are to fulfill those needs, and acknowledging this understanding to people is important. Empathy does not stand on itself. It must be balanced with fairness and reciprocity. But empathy is where true and sustainable leadership starts.  Being empathic allows a leader to anticipate issues. It also allows people to listen to issues of wellbeing. And this has become more difficult when there is physical distance.

Lesson 6: Wellbeing has become more important than ever. Kindness is required.

When we ask people how they are, people usually answer “fine”. Deep listening skills enable leaders to go beyond the superficial interactions. Without victimizing people, we must realize that people have a hard time. The possibilities for recovery have been reduced as many people are unable to engage in their hobbies, cannot go out and meet friends and family. Life has been reduced to work, walking, and family. That means kindness is at its place. But for many leaders, this is unchartered territory. Too many leaders still feel they have no business with the well-being of their employees. They do not want to cross the boundaries of private life. But let’s forget about that idea. There is no wall between the private and the professional life anymore. When people suffer at home, there might be a crossover toward work and vice versa.

Lesson 7: Organizational resilience is more than cognitive toughness or hardiness

Being kind is not enough. Organizations need to be resilient in the face of adversity. We might think that we need to develop resilience on an individual level. But organizational resilience is a multilevel and multidimensional concept, combining collective and individual capabilities. Yes, it helps when employees are tough and robust. But resilience is also an organizational capability that depends on the quality of leadership, the strength of collaboration, and the capacity to learn. Leaders should develop organizational resilience more than ever.

Lesson 8: Self care for leaders is on the rise.

As organizational resilience depends on the quality of leadership, we should never forget to take care of the leaders themselves. From all the leadership lessons, this lesson might be the one we might easily neglect. Many leaders have felt alone during the lockdown. Let’s show appreciation for those leaders who are often between the anvil and the hammer and who are the backbone of the organization. People who know me, also know that I never plead for less leadership, but always for better leadership. An organization should take care of their competent and trustworthy leaders. They are one of the foundations of organizational resilience.

From Leadership Lessons to Leadership Development

These are the 8 leadership lessons I took from 2020. I applaud the many leaders who make it possible to get through this period. Their contributions have made many things possible. I am convinced we should do something with these leadership lessons. Let’s work and develop resilient leaders who can generate value for their organization, their teams, and for themselves.


We should not only extend kudos to leaders. Kiitos is also required.

David Ducheyne

Otolith has acquired a lot of experience in leadership development and flexible work arrangements. Get in touch with us if you want to know more. We can help you in defining your organizational model of the future.

Get in touch

Since 1996 David Ducheyne has delivered many keynotes to organizations. He currently works on increasing the resilience of organizations through better leadership, agile cooperation, and learning. 

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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