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Leadership legacy is a team activity

 ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
(Maya Angelou, American writer and poet)

How we made people feel – whether they are staff, customers, suppliers or other partners  – during the Covid-19 crisis, will be what they remember. That will be, at least in part, our leadership legacy.

From the middle of March to the middle of May we convened virtual conversations with over 100 leaders and coaches to track their experience of leading through the turmoil of Covid-19, what leadership qualities were needed and what might be their ‘leadership legacy’.

The issue of leadership legacy in the post Covid-19 world came up spontaneously in over one third of our 14 conversations.

The dialogue centred on questions such as: “Once we are able to look back at this period of change, how will your leadership be described – what is the legacy you are creating now by your behaviours and focus?”


Balancing short-term crisis with building for the new future

Anecdotal evidence suggested that leaders were having to focus on some very specific details to keep people safe in the short term – as well as keeping their companies solvent. Immersion into similar levels of detail will be required to plan for the upturn and the return to work phase.

Short term reactions are necessary, but leaders also need to attend to the relationships and opportunities that are emerging in the volatility and uncertainty of the crisis.

What many had not attended to was how the balance of their attention would define a kind of leadership legacy – 33 per cent had not addressed this question in a deliberate way.

The importance of this ‘legacy’ is that it may well determine the engagement scores – those key indicators of trust and staff satisfaction that drive talent retention, customer experience and productivity – for many years, or render them unnecessary because of the high levels of engagement created by actions taken in the ‘crisis time’


Brand value

We may conjecture that some leaders’ image or ‘personal brand’ will be so damaged it will impact their performance ratings until they are able to act to counter the impressions they created ‘back then’.  And it is not only the legacy of individual leaders that will be noticed – organizations and brand value will also be judged.

We heard examples of leaders taking different stances, likely to dramatically impact their following and engagement.  For example, a leader who signaled the company values with:

“If you are billing to clients, fine. If not, take annual holiday. If, after that, you have no billable work you will need to go on furlough…”

Compare this to another leader’s message: “As a guiding principle during the crisis we will halt our organization changes or headcount reductions. We will keep salaries and bonuses constant. We are doing this to help you focus on helping our people be safe and our factories producing”

Even though of course the costs of the latter strategy would have to be addressed, it is clear which one would be more likely to inspire loyalty and trust in their followers.


Leading through the unknown

The ability to admit to ‘not knowing’ and the ability to lead through uncertainty is emerging as a vital part of one’s leadership legacy.

Offering clarity around what is known and what is still uncertain is a key part of this.  Being able to state the truth around uncertainty was fundamental to trust-building, for example the leader who said: “we don’t know, the virus sets the timeframe, and once we get to a ‘new –normal’ we will know more about where we stand and what to do about costs and budgets.”


Teaming: a shared leadership legacy

To build a really strong ‘leadership legacy’ is a team activity, using consistency, shared purpose and intent. It is also probably an investment that will give a huge payback when done deliberately and well.  Themes from our conversations include: leadership teams will not succeed if they stay in the current mode and: to really get our organization performing in 2021, teams need to be supported to help them continue to perform at each stage of the changes we now face.

‘Teaming’ is an alternative to seeing teams as sealed units that operate independently of each other.  Teaming can be fostered with effective Team Coaching: equipping teams to be  more open, with team members all working across the business ecosystems, creating ‘teams of teams’ alliances and partnerships – allowing diversity, innovation and agility to flourish.


Creating a ‘Build Back Better’ legacy

Was the Covid-19 crisis just something to be ‘got through’ or, as many leaders said, the biggest challenge and learning opportunity of their career?

The phrase ‘Build Back Better’ was heard from many different sources.  To do this, leaders need to be deeply curious around the patterns of behaviour, assumptions and habits that they and their teams have fallen into – many of which have been exposed in the crisis.  This is an opportunity to question these and to ‘build back better’ than before.

The hopes expressed for a better future was one that was more human- and planet-friendly, less linear in its thinking, and more resilient and innovative as part of a strategy to recover from any impending recession and thrive in the future.

Now is the ‘time for teams’ – the time for leaders to make the space for their teams, either virtually or face-to-face when it is safe to do so, to co-create a shared future. This crisis – and how we respond to it – will shape our legacy for the next generation of leaders, as well as for ourselves.

For more information about how we’re helping teams get back together please click here

This article was written by Orchard House Partner, Margaret Bishop