2020 was the year that separated the great leaders from the good – while the mediocre and subpar were left behind.
The unpredictable events of that year required leaders to be brave, shoulder new burdens, and maintain a sense of calm for both employees and customers.
Things have cooled down a bit so far in 2021, but we now have new insights into what makes for great leadership. Here is what business leaders shared with us as they step into the new year.
Map Out Backup Plans
While we all watched the world change in 2020, many businesses found themselves without a strategy to respond to the crisis.
They ended up sacrificing a lot of time, money, and energy as they scrambled to figure out a solution on the fly.
No company was expected to have the perfect response to an unpredictable scenario, but we clearly saw which organizations were caught totally unprepared.
“Leadership during the pandemic is about always having a backup plan,” said Kaz Amor, Founder of VoCe Haircare. “A great leader always knows how to pivot and adjust within every aspect of their life.
Plan ahead when you can, and think on your feet when you can’t. Remote work has really shifted how we’ve gone about our operations. We’ve really seen our employees kick it into high gear.
Although changes have been made, productivity has been great. Leaders that listen and learn along with their employees are the ones that are keeping afloat during the pandemic.”
A handful of companies have made the best of a bad situation and came out ahead of their competition as a result of strong leadership.
Ready to Respond to Crisis
It’s not enough to just have a crisis management strategy in place – nearly every company has something like that within their archives and documents.
What matters more is actually deploying that game plan and making sure everyone within the organization is on the same page.
This proves the difference between having a surface-level response and actually making bold moves that keep people safe and productive during tough times.
“Being a good leader during a pandemic revolves around proper crisis management,” said Chris Gadek, Head of Growth for AdQuick.
“You need to always know what is happening with your coworkers and what you can do to make sure that they get through any situation that brings them down.
Knowing how to react to people that have had a traumatic experience occur to them is important as a leader.
A lot of people will go to work stressed or worried about loved ones and it is on you to ensure that any concerns they have are met with open arms and an understanding mindset.”
Rather than dwelling on what could have been done differently, great leaders stay “full steam ahead” toward the future.
Connect on a Human Level
A big portion of the population feels disconnected from the world due to restrictions, lockdowns, and other major changes to their way of life.
Rather than brushing those things under the rug, leaders must acknowledge them and respond appropriately with a human connection.
“Proper communication as a leader is important to help your team through the pandemic,” said Jeffery Brown, President of Big Fig Mattress.
“Everyone in the company needs to be comfortable communicating to upper management when they have a problem at home or a concern that would affect them at work.
There will be things that occur in everyday life that normally wouldn’t and that is OK.
Be sure to be accommodating and keep uplifting conversation to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and safe speaking about things that are important to them.”
Workers are the lifeblood of every company, so they need to be heard and taken care of as well.
Accommodate and Encourage
Whether they’re working at a desk at home or braving the frontlines, employees are going to have unique situations that require some extra accommodation.
Productivity took a backseat for a while in 2020 as businesses found their footing during the crisis, and good leaders understood that they need to retain their best employees no matter what.
Losing some production in the short term is a reasonable trade-off for a long-term commitment.
“Being a good leader means you need to learn how to accommodate different people’s needs,” said Ryan Solomon, CEO of Kissmetrics.
“With everyone working from home this means that there will be far different issues person-to-person.
Be open and willing to negotiate problems that occur with people and work toward solutions that are win-win. This means making changes that you normally wouldn’t make while working in-person.
If someone needs to pick their kids up from their daycare or school, work around it. Small things like that make a huge difference when it comes to being a leader during a pandemic.”
Lead Yourself First
We often admire business leaders for their amazing emotional control and their ability to stay focused when everything around them is changing fast.
This doesn’t mean they are free from doubt or insecurity – they simply have a strong sense of mission and discipline that keeps them moving forward no matter what.
“Entrepreneurial leadership requires self-governance,” said Roy Ferman, Founder & CEO of Seek Capital.
“You have to be able to govern and guide yourself as well as your team.
Especially when others are looking towards you, it is extremely important to be able to take action without being told to do so.”
When a leader shows strength during uncertain times, this sets a good precedent for customers and clients to join them in the journey.
Pivot on a Dime
We watched so many businesses make bold pivots in the past 12 months, some more successful than others.
The companies that got swept away in the chaos were the ones that refused to make any change whatsoever.
Even a minor pivot in strategy or messaging was necessary to stay afloat in 2020.
Executives and managers are now recognizing the importance of agility in their own leadership styles.
“Being a leader requires that you stay innovative, and are ready to pivot on a moment’s notice,” said Rachel Jones, Head of PR at Hope Health Supply.
“Therefore, an important task includes constantly devising new, creative ideas that can play a part in your marketing strategies.
Remaining visible is extremely important in the current business environment, so thinking outside the box when setting up campaigns and exploring new PR opportunities is absolutely essential to being a good leader.”
On the other hand, too many pivots and changes of heart can be disastrous as well. Balance is vital for braving these storms.
Master Multiple Disciplines
Flexibility is at a premium in 2021 after businesses saw how quickly things can change.
Leaders that specialize in a particular area of business are now expected to branch out and help their organizations in any way possible, even if they aren’t fully prepared.
The best leaders in 2020 were able to put their egos aside and take on new responsibilities as needed.
That ability to learn from in-the-moment experience is a powerful skill that companies will take note of moving forward.
“You have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone,” said Nik Sharma, CEO of Sharma Brands.
“Even before you lead a team, when you are building something from the ground up, you simply must be a jack and master of all trades.
When you do expand and start leading a team, you will still have the be the right hand for every department and sector.”
Communicate Like a Pro
Companies that doubled down on communication were better suited to succeed amid the chaos of 2020, and now every business is looking to improve on this front.
More emails, more meetings, more memos – there is no such thing as overcommunication during a time like this, and leadership needs to keep this in mind even as things calm down.
“Every great leader must be an effective communicator,” said Daniel Shapiro, Founder & CEO of Fourlaps. “Listening is a vital component for effective communication.
The ability to listen for the essential message and decipher the emotions behind that message accurately using your best discretion and focus is paramount.
You must be a detailed listener to communicate professionally with others.”
When employees see leaders communicating frequently and effectively, they start reflecting those behaviors as well, and everyone wins.
In high-pressure situations, many leaders suffer from an inflated sense of self-responsibility.
This can be good or bad, but generally speaking, leaders should be ready and willing to delegate with speed and precision.
For some executives and managers, this is easier said than done.
“Leaders need to be able to clearly delegate tasks,” said Benjamin Smith, Founder of Disco.
“Most times what is produced is a reflection of the leaders of production. When explaining something, make sure you leave your team without a shadow of a doubt.
Employees want to feel like their leader is structured and well organized otherwise it can be difficult to produce where there is a lack of clarity.”
Proper delegation doesn’t just make things more manageable for leaders themselves, but it also gives other team players a chance to shine and make key decisions for the better.
Learn the Art of Feedback
When feedback stops, so does forward progress. That’s one of the realities of business that can’t be denied.
Leaders might think they are making all the right calls in a crisis situation, but until they are willing to hear feedback from others, they might as well be working in the dark.
“You need to be able to think critically and deliver criticism,” said Assaf Kostiner, Founder of Paint Your Life.
“All leaders have to be able to ask the hard questions and make the sharp judgments in order to lead your team effectively.
You cannot skim, graze over anything, you must parse and peruse.”
Listening to feedback is tough for everyone, especially when the pressure mounts, but this is a vital skill and practice for modern business leaders.
Adopt Unrelenting Positivity
Staying positive is tough in normal business conditions, and it becomes even more challenging when it seems like the world is spiraling out of control.
From the executive suite to individual teams, leaders in the business arena need to keep that positivity maxed out if they want to push through these difficult stages.
“You need to have a very infectiously positive attitude,” said Rishi Kulkarni, Co-Founder & CEO of Revv.
“If you want to lead people you need to be someone who constantly shares positivity.
You have to foster a good spirit in the team and make everyone see the attractiveness of the job and the mission.”
Remember that positivity shouldn’t be confused with naïve optimism – proper planning and action are ultimately what make the difference.
Reflect, Analyze, Improve
We’ve all known business leaders who claim to value feedback, but don’t budge an inch when they receive criticism of any kind.
These are the type of leaders who end up doing more harm than good, even if they think they’re a godsend to the organization.
“Aim to be a master of constructive criticism,” said Olivia Young, Head of Product Design at Conscious Items.
“Being a leader requires reflecting on production, analyzing what could improve, and implementing actionable criticism that will yield better results.
The challenging part of this is delivering your critiques in a manner that is effective yet encouraging and uplifting.”
Considering how many CEOs stepped down from their posts these past 12 months, it’s clear that these business leaders need to take feedback more seriously and leave the stubbornness behind.
Empathize with Everyone
Great business leaders know how to set a high standard for themselves and others, but can also empathize with peers and subordinates when the occasion calls for it.
Being ruthless will only get a leader so far in their career – that reputation will not serve them well in the long run.
Instead, a sense of empathy will help leaders build stronger relationships based on trust and mutual understanding.
“Showing empathy, but also always focusing on the goal at hand,” said Jordan Smyth, CEO & Founder of Gleamin.
“To be a good leader during this time you must show strength but also accept and celebrate mistakes.
When you slip up, share it with your team to show that you are human too. We want to encourage initiative, but that will only happen if team members feel comfortable making mistakes.”
Employees can understand the hierarchy of an organization but still relate to leaders on a human level, and that makes a huge difference in culture.
Embrace the Hybrid Office
When do we get back to the office? That’s the universal question right now, and nobody seems to have a good answer.
Some businesses are already starting to run in-person operations, while others are being more cautious.
What we’ll see next is a hybrid office setup that allows people to work where they want and in a way that maximizes their productivity. Gone are the days of the strict 9-to-5 for many workers.
“Being able to lead remote teams is important in 2021,” said Sean O’Brien, CMO of Modloft.
“I think the concept of an office will slowly be rolled out.
Leading remote teams is more eco-friendly and efficient to work from home or an office close by, not one that some employer dictates you should show up at.”
Offer More Agency
Many leaders learned in 2020 that their employees are far more self-sufficient than they ever imagined.
This doesn’t mean that managers are out of a job, but it indicates a possible shift in the role of supervisors and team leaders in the workplace.
Leaders must now reassess how they fit in with their teams and be more flexible in their positions.
Offering employees the chance to try new things (workflows, apps, schedules) will be the way of the future.
“Your team relies on you to call the shots and make tough decisions, but they also appreciate having agency and being in control of their own projects,” said Liz Eddy, Co-Founder & CEO of Lantern.
“The best leaders strike a balance between these two styles of management. Find what works for you and your team to get the benefits of both.”
If teams are falling behind on productivity and totally disengaged – that’s obviously a problem. However, today’s employees can get a lot done on their own if given the room to work.
Take Ownership Often
Here’s the tricky part of leadership that nobody talks about. Successes are often credited to the team, but failures tend to fall on the one person in charge. This happened a lot in 2020, and that dynamic isn’t going to change.
Instead, leaders must learn to accept defeat occasionally and bounce back strong. There is no time to be down and out.
“At the end of the day, leaders need to shoulder the responsibility for failure while sharing success with the rest of the team,” said John Scheer, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Herman Scheer.
“Does that sound fair? It’s not meant to be. True leaders know how to take hits on the chin and keep pushing forward while making the appropriate adjustments.”
Set an Example of Excellence
When you walk into a room, you can often tell who is in charge just based on their presence and body language.
These aren’t exactly leadership “skills” per se, but a true embodiment of what it means to lead with confidence.
This doesn’t mean being pompous or putting other people down. If anything, this positive attitude should help lift others up to their peak ability.
“Hold yourself to a high standard and others will follow suit – that’s just human nature at work,” said Jason Wong, CEO & Founder of Doe Lashes.
“If other people see you pushing the limits of what’s possible and staying positive, that vibe is going to spread across the organization and move the dial in a big way.”
Executives should not hide themselves away, but instead, be present and connect with employees at every level during challenging times.
The tendency to micromanage becomes more prevalent when a company is going through a difficult stretch.
Managers want to make sure everything is going according to plan, but those good intentions can make employees feel like someone is always watching over their shoulder.
“Small business owners often have a hard time trusting others to run the business and empowering them to make decisions,” said Michelle Kubot, Marketing Director at Ambrosia Treatment Centers.
“But there’s a big difference between micromanagement and leadership.”
It takes confidence in one’s team to let them work independently when the pressure mounts, and great leaders will give them the tools to succeed without being overbearing.
Listen Closely to Your Team
Some employees have more to say than others, which means that leaders aren’t always getting the complete picture when it comes to feedback.
Managers and supervisors might want to ask individuals directly if they have any thoughts on a new project or just want to speak out about anything that might be bothering them.
You never know if there’s an issue being hidden away, or someone just needs to vent about the stresses of the job.
“Most of the time your coworkers and teammates just want to be heard,” said Derin Oyekan, Co-Founder of Reel Paper.
“They may not have a groundbreaking idea or anything major, but listening to their line of thinking is so crucial to keeping them involved.
You never know when someone has a powerful new perspective to share, so keep the feedback flowing.”
When people feel more comfortable speaking about their experiences at work and offering new solutions, this is a good sign that a team is moving in the right direction.
Craft Your Personal Style
With an infinite number of courses, books, and seminars on leadership, you’d think we’d have this thing figured out by now!
The truth is that everyone has their own interpretation of what leadership truly is, and this can change based on the challenges we face.
“Look at all the great leaders in history and business, then find the common threads to inspire your own style,” said Alex Keyan, CEO & Founder of GoPure Beauty.
“Are you more intense or laid back? Compassionate or cold? Active or passive? Never go too far to either extreme, but work to consciously create a leadership identity that works for you and your staff.”
Managers shouldn’t flip flop from one personality to another in the workplace, but a shift in tone can be appropriate depending on the situation at hand.
So much has been said about the importance of failure in the world of business, but those who experience it firsthand know that it still stings after the thousandth time!
However, we get stronger every time we fall and get back up, and there is no end to the journey of improvement.
Even the greatest leaders make the occasional mistake, and they simply view it as a learning experience to better prepare them for what’s to come.
“You’re going to slip up and make the wrong calls now and then, so learn to never beat yourself up and bounce back immediately,” said Aylon Steinhart, CEO and Founder of Eclipse Foods.
“Look at what mistakes you made, change the game plan accordingly, and keep the pedal to the metal. This is going to save you so much headache and boost your efficiency in a huge way.”
Train to Retain
Employees have a certain advantage right now in a world that’s shifting to remote work.
Team leaders should be aware of this dynamic so that they don’t scare off the top talent and find themselves in a deficit of horsepower.
More training and one-on-one support can help here, but it’s ultimately about creating a pleasant and collaborative culture.
If employees are happy and engaged without being pushed past their limits, that’s generally all it takes to maintain an even keel.
“Training your staff is also common sense, because it can improve your business performance, bottom-line profit, and staff morale,” said Lisa Sanovski, Owner of Web Hosting Rating.
“Just consider this old business adage: What if you train staff and they leave? But what if you don’t and they stay?”
Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to keep an employee who wants to move on. In that case, we get a fresh start with a chance to improve.
Don’t Forget Fundamentals
Leadership skills are a balance between emotion, connection, experience, and real ability to solve problems. Too much focus on soft skills will not get a leader very far, especially in highly technical fields.
Oftentimes. leaders without the extra flair are better at getting the job done, and that’s exactly what a team needs at the time.
“So many people perceive themselves as leaders, but miss the mark when it comes to simple, daily tasks,” said Darren Litt, CEO of MarketerHire. “Take yourself off the pedestal and look at what needs to happen for success.
Give yourself precise goals to follow and delegate based on real data. Keep things down to earth and authentic. That’s how great work gets done fast.”
Looking back on 2020, it’s clear that there were huge leadership gaps throughout the business world, resulting in a big rearrangement of power, market share, and influence.
At the same time, unlikely heroes of leadership emerged from unexpected places. It will be interesting to watch how companies recover in 2021 and rethink leadership within their own ranks.