Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 14, 2020

Leadership in a COVID-19 World: The Power of Humility

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore once remarked, “Leaders must be judged within the context of the circumstances they encounter.” In essence, all decisions are contextual. With the outbreak and escalation of the current pandemic, the context has changed dramatically and some leaders have been caught off guard. They are being called upon to react to alien circumstances where no playbook exists and previous experience provides limited direction. 

We’ve had conversations with CEOs over the past weeks about how they are navigating the ongoing changes and challenges their businesses are facing. COVID-19 has made many of these challenges worse and created brand new ones. When asked what leadership traits have been called to the forefront in this environment, many have commented that the one leadership trait that has stood out is humility.  

In the time of Aristotle, humility was defined as inordinate self-deprecation or exaggerated meekness. It was seen more as a vice rather than a virtue. Today, we tend to define humility as humbleness — an attribute that enables leaders to foster a high degree of openness, trust and collaboration. We’ve identified three ways leaders can cultivate their own humility during this very challenging time — and help engage their employees in the process. 

Manage the ego. As we found in our own study of the CEO lifecycle, some chief executives can become overly confident and develop blind spots. As leaders become ever more isolated at the top of their organisation, they run the risk of relying too heavily on their own judgments and decision-making abilities rather than listening to others. Whilst it is undeniable that our own culture, experiences and emotional make-up play a significant part in how we present ourselves to the world, keeping our ego in check and avoiding overconfidence is key to successful leadership. When an unexpected challenge such as COVID-19 disrupts everything we know and all standard rules of engagement, successful leaders challenge their standard approach to decision-making and actively seek out other opinions. Embracing a more open dialogue, collective decision-making, and a joined sense of accountability has helped some of the CEOs we spoke with identify opportunities, fostering innovation amid the disruption. 

Manage the mind. Effective leaders are able to remain open-minded in times of crisis whilst providing leadership, reassurance and confidence to employees, shareholders and customers. Being reactionary tends to lead to expedient, but often poor decisions that do not take the greater good into account. Good decision-making — that balances different constituents, addresses both short- and long-term implications, and navigates disrupted business models — creates a level of complexity that few can master but all must attempt to emerge from these unprecedented circumstances successfully. To do this, leaders must embrace agility and a learning mindset. Some are fortunate to already possess these traits, but many will seek help from their boards and more frequently from coaches and counselors, who play an increasingly important role in the life of the modern-day leader. As each company deploys its strategy to overcome this crisis, collective learning, sharing and peer exchange become valuable resources for all leaders. 

Manage the emotion. It can be difficult for leaders to strike the balance between showing strong leadership whilst connecting with colleagues and employees in an authentic way. Leaders often want to provide reassurance through their vision and guidance, but can overlook how important it is to demonstrate their vulnerability. It is these moments of human frailty that help us relate and connect with one another. Empathy emerged as a key theme in our discussions with leaders and has proved to be critical in leading through this crisis. It has provided a sense of togetherness and collective resilience, inspiring employees, customers and other stakeholders to respond to these challenges with an enhanced sense of solidarity and grit. These behaviors and interactions help to create a culture of caring that will last far beyond this difficult moment in time. 

C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” As we fight this virus across the world, business leaders are asked to take careful note of what they should — and should not — be doing. The world is becoming more and more unpredictable. Demonstrating genuine humility may provide leaders with the power to persist and thrive amid uncertainty — and set the example for others to do the same.


Alex Zhu is a member of Spencer Stuart's Industrial Practice and leads the Supply Chain Practice for Asia Pacific. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.

Jonathan Smith is a member of Spencer Stuart's European CEO & Board Practice and the head of the European Sports Business Practice. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.