What a year it was! It wouldn’t be wrong to say that there was as much leadership learning in the year as there is from an entire executive MBA program.

When we coach executive MBA participants at INSEAD Business School we always support them to come up with an action plan reflective of any new learnings. We then coach them against that action plan and ask them to renew it while graduating and re-entering their business life. Today, as we close a very challenging year and start a new one, I was reminded of that process.

So let’s try to capture our learnings and come up with an action plan for 2021.

Dealing with trauma
It was such a traumatic year because there was sudden, unexpected damage and stress to many lives. You don’t need to be damaged to be traumatised either; it is also enough to be affected. Fear and panic followed by anger are instinctual reactions towards trauma and collectively, they make it hard to act consciously. All leaders will have experienced those feelings both towards themselves from others and from themselves toward others.

This year resilience must be the watchword. In 2020, there were so many articles, seminars, and training sessions on how to develop resilience. We talked about physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resilience, which all require awareness and the development of a new set of mental skills. Maybe the most important skill to learn was the ability to stop and reflect, take time and rest, rather than to act. Developing this skill required a real ‘unlearning’ for leaders of their existing habits, before they could learn this critical requirement.

Management by care
There are always new concepts in management like ‘management by objectives’. But last year, it has been about ‘management by care’. Leaders learned that once people (including themselves) are worried for their own – and their loved ones’ – lives, health, safety and future, they cannot concentrate and work efficiently.

Also, in an environment where people (including themselves) can’t go to the office to work, a controlling approach is neither possible nor useful when it comes to getting things done. Leaders are now desperately reliant on people’s independent commitment and capacity to work, so need to do all they can to take good care of them. A lot of research shows that the companies who developed better systems to support their people’s mental and physical wellbeing during the pandemic got better performance results.

Sustainability and diversity
In previous years, sustainability and diversity have been important for companies’ reputations and competitive advantages but not their existential core issues. 2020 proved that they are now a ‘must have’. During the pandemic, leaders have experienced that if they don’t manage sustainability and diversity as a core part of their business, they have the power to damage or even destroy their organisation.

Technology is not optional
The companies who were tech savvy adapted to the pandemic induced changes faster and better. And when the pandemic is finally over they will not leave the likes of Teams and Zoom behind; they will keep living and working with them, saving time, and saving money.

People mean business
Last year made everybody understand that unless people accept and onboard changes, then those changes won’t happen effectively. Money is, of course, a motivator, while technology is an enabler but the change will only work if the people who do the work have the willingness to make it happen.

Mental health
Mental health problems are not something that just happen to other people. When there is continuous stress, mental health issues can happen to everyone. Companies should provide appropriate support in the system.

Under these huge learnings from 2020, there is one kind of action plan that we can offer to leaders:

On managing self;

  • take good care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually
  • take time for reflection and recharging to be more effective
  • don’t be afraid to show vulnerability.

On managing others;

  • create a psychologically safe space for people to be themselves and ask for help
  • foster a culture where collaboration is more valued than competition
  • ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to championing diversity through the people you hire, promote, and consult.

On managing business;

  • treat sustainability and diversity as KPIs not simply as organisational values. Measure, incentivise and monitor
  • look beyond cost when assessing buildings, technology and people. Buildings provide a shared space for community and identity; technology enables people to perform better; and, people still make the real difference.

As we all return to work, I wish you a smooth re-entry into a happy and healthy new year.