Leadership in 2020: The impact of Covid-19

Leadership in 2020: The impact of Covid-19

Jo Brosnahan is Chair of the Harrison Grierson Board. She is also Chair of Northpower Fibre and Maritime New Zealand. Jo’s the founding Chair of the Taitokerau Education Trust in Northland and a former Chair of Landcare Research, a director of Housing New Zealand Corporation and HLC. Jo has been CEO of the Northland Regional Council and of the Auckland Regional Council. Jo is an Advisory Trustee of Leadership New Zealand, which she founded and chaired for more than a decade. She is a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Directors where she develops and facilitates governance courses and of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, of which she was national President.

In the article below, Jo reflects on 2020 and the leadership qualities needed to charter the unknown territories of a global pandemic.

A watershed year
2020 has been a watershed year in terms of exposing New Zealanders to their potential. I’m immensely proud of New Zealand and how we’ve dealt with the year. We’ve really shown our values as a nation and that we care about each other, which is quite special. The nature of who we are as New Zealanders has definitely helped with our response to the pandemic. Our economy isn’t tanking because we’ve all stepped up and played a part, however we could. We’ve done all the right things and supported each other, shopped locally, checked on our neighbours and adhered to the rules.

But I’m not hiding how hard it’s been. If I reflect on the year, like everyone else, I’m pretty tired. Most of us haven’t had a proper break and we’ve worked in quite difficult circumstances. However, at Alert Level 4 we learned what worked and how to look after ourselves, our families, friends and communities. This has stood us in good stead since. So while it’s been a hard year, it’s been a year of learning what the possibilities are for all New Zealanders.

An awakening
2020 has shown us how having a different model of leadership can help us thrive and get through a crisis. For many, it’s been an awakening about the type of leadership needed to get us through. The Prime Minster and the people around her have led the way around values and clarity, about being in this together, being a team, and they’ve provided direction about what we needed to do with openness and trust. You don’t need to look far offshore to see that’s what’s missing in so many countries which are trying to deal with the pandemic. I also saw numerous examples of great leadership at the grassroots level. People really stood up and helped others through, wrapping support networks around those in need.

Strong corporate leadership this year has been based on clarity of purpose. For example, HG’s Board and Executive Team recognised in early March that we were entering totally unknown territory. Knowing that our role was to get HG and its people through this crisis, we asked ourselves what were the clear principles to guide us and then identified and communicated strategies to survive, revive and ultimately thrive. And we led by example, taking pay cuts, not expecting others to do what we weren’t doing and being clear about was needed to survive.

Personal toll
Sometimes there were hard stories to tell and at HG we told them well, but that didn’t take away the stress or strain and the impact on people’s lives. We needed to make some hard calls but the decisions were made with compassion and feeling. I remember looking at people’s faces on Zoom and I could see that our senior leaders were taking these decisions very personally and while they were doing really hard things, they were doing them with empathy and care. This is what leadership is about. We can only survive with the value of caring for others. Independence and personal freedom doesn’t cut it when it comes to a virus.

A flexible board
At critical times during this year, the boards I’m involved with met weekly. We knew our organisations’ executives were working their hearts out, so we chopped down our requirements about lengthy board papers and made sure we weren’t overburdening the executives. Frankly, we adjusted to what the needs were and we looked after each other. Board meetings were run online and we learned to be more effective. Decisions were made more quickly because they had to be and that’s a good thing. We adjusted our processes to be more appropriate and we kept on looking forward. Above all we cared about each other.

On the boards that I chair, I ensured we had really clear principles to guide us, despite ever-changing circumstances. Board members were available to mentor and support our executive teams, who knew we had their backs. It was very collegial; we were all in it together fighting for our people and our shareholders. I think boards have come out with more flexibility in being able to work in different ways and build and strengthen company culture even further.

Servant leadership
2020 has been a time for ‘servant leadership’ - which means those leaders with a basic humility and a clear sense of purpose who put others first. The key elements of servant leadership are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community. Interestingly, it was this model of leadership that I concluded, following my US Harkness Fellowship nearly 25 years ago, was the one for the future.

Unhelpful leadership
Leadership is my thing and I believe that people are basically good. During 2020, we saw people responding to leaders who are positive and led the way. However, what genuinely surprised me was the toxicity of the election. Surely people have learned that we need to have dialogue and embrace different perspectives and different points of view? I’m disappointed by the people who don’t see that opportunity and go for a more transactional environment, which I think no longer serves us well.

COVID-19 has been a real test for leaders around the world. Look at the failures of leadership in the United States and in the UK in dealing with this disease. I have wonderful American and British friends who are shattered by what’s happened around them. We don’t have to look far to see the consequences of having leaders who don’t stand up and lead with the right values.

What we've learnt
Most organisations have captured the learnings of COVID-19 and the core of it has been the nature of leadership that was required to survive, revive and thrive. At HG, we didn’t lose sight of our strategy. We wanted to ensure the future was really clear and that our points of difference regarding sustainability, the Maori context, and diversity were not forgotten.

At a national level, I think people want to ensure there is continuing trust and openness at the top, and the importance of treating others how you wish to be treated, with kindness. I also think people are saying we like working together and we can achieve good things this way.
For me, 2020 has anchored that leadership is key. It’s been interesting how different organisations have responded in different ways. Those with visionary foresight were months ahead of the game and those who couldn’t see the reality until it hit, lost a few months. With increasing change and uncertainty around climate change, technological disruption, and political and economic disparity pressures across the globe, the importance of having a culture that is at all times alert to environmental scanning is paramount.

Bigger issues
The world we live in is immensely complex. Everything is connected. While the longer term consequences of this pandemic are unknown, we mustn’t forget about the reality of the bigger issues beyond COVID-19. Climate change, world over-population, conflict, collapsing economies, drought. Now there is talk the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic. Surely, if we can learn anything from 2020, it’s that a new style of leadership is the only way to ensure our collective futures and deal with those huge issues.

For us at HG, our focus on sustainability, our understanding of the importance of diversity and of the opportunities around the Maori dimension, together with our leading role in urban development, underscore our vision to make amazing communities for people. This is HG’s purpose and how we can best play our part in helping to shape the world.

We all stood up
As we reach the end of the year, I think we’re all tired. I’d like to acknowledge that for all organisations, the impact of COVID-19 has required every person to adapt and adjust and in some cases it’s been very hard. People have had to home-school, work from their kitchen tables, while caring for babies and the elderly. Some have lost their jobs. Life has not been easy for anybody.

2020 has required every one of us to stand up. Not just leaders. Leadership is about us all. We all did it. At HG, everyone put their shoulder in and did their best to adapt and evolve. That’s the remarkable thing that has come out of this year for New Zealand. And that’s why I think that the uniqueness of our country and our aroha for each other has been the feature of the year.

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