Leaders are made not born. COVID-19 is our test case.

Leaders are made not born. COVID-19 is our test case.

Author: Bongani Chinkanda – Bravado Managing Director

We all thought this would be over in 21 days. Jokingly we posted our temporary workstations with #newnormal #WFH. As part of the excitement we attended every webinar or IG live session that popped up on our social media feeds. We waited with the hope that we would be going back to ‘work’ soon.

As leaders our default was to set up weekly team check-in sessions, all the while missing our corner offices and the physical trapping our organisations gave us. We would soon be parking in the basement, so we thought. We missed catching the executive elevator to the top floor and being able to physically read the mood of the team in meetings.

It’s been 18 months since the president announced the first lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a far cry from our 21-day, max 40-day work-from-home plan.

What has changed for us leaders? What have we learnt? Is there a normal we are working toward, or is change the only normal we must accept? We, as leaders, must reflect on these questions and more, if we are going to have highly functioning teams going into the future.

What have I learnt in the past 18 months? What can I share from experience in my effort to answer the age-old question – are leaders born or made?

  1. Managing a Freelance Agency (Team)

The one thing I hated about using freelancers for excess capacity was the lack of physical presence. As an agency leader, I wanted to see you pitch up on time, do the work and finally be able to come to your desk for a quick check-in. #WFH exposed my controlling nature as a leader; it was a blind spot I have had to work on. What I have learnt is that leading by example still applies in the remote workspace. If the team experiences delivery and commitment from your end, a new standard is set which we can then reenforce daily.

  1. Building Trust

In a crisis, the best way to build trust is to be vulnerable; it’s ok to be scared and not have an answer to everything. Our industry was one of the first to get impacted as clients froze or reallocated budgets due to Covid. What we experienced as an industry was high levels of retrenchments and agency closures. I led such a team that experienced closure weeks into the pandemic. What I learnt in that process was to always be honest, both about the state of the business and your feelings as a leader. I was not able to save that business, however, I built high levels of trust with a team that was experiencing uncertainty. What teams need is information, no matter how unsettling. This empowers them to make decisions that affect their lives outside of work. They also want to see that you are in it with them. This is when trust is built.

  1. Lead with emotions first when nothing makes sense

I believe 70% of leadership is about showing up. It is the energy we bring to a situation that determines the desired outcome. Showing up physically was easy – power dress, makeup, firm handshake, picking the right chair at the table; the list was endless. The #newnormal with MS Teams avatars as our only form of presence, we have had to adopt. Being in touch with my feelings every morning; the tone of my voice in meetings and listening with my heart rather than ears alone, have been new skills I have had to learn. Our teams and clients have had to do the same; that is why when something is off on our side, the “Are you OK?” is asked by the other avatar on the call. I believe leading with emotions first makes us better leaders, because there is no greater connection than human emotions.

  1. Basic Mental Health training; Leadership 101

I strongly believe that every leader needs to do basic mental health training, whether you lead one person or 30 000. Just like a law enforcement officer needs basic weapons training to survive, we need this to lead teams. What this period has confirmed is that both we and our teams are not robots.

In our industry, depression, anxiety and burnout were terms associated with the creative department. At times, we as leaders did not want to acknowledge these challenges, as it got into the way of client deliverables and revenue deadlines. So, excuse you if you are having a ‘tough’ day, but this is the business we are in – was the attitude.

What needs to be acknowledged is that we are going through a mental health crisis and it’s ok as a leader to say: “I am not OK. I need time out to get help that will see me through this period.” It is by prioritising our own mental health that we can lead our teams authentically going into the future. We need to normalise mental health discussions and create environments that support and empower – this is now our primary role as leaders.

Through my leadership experiences in the past 18 months, I can answer in the affirmative that leaders are not born but made. It is through adversity that our resolve is tested as this pandemic has shown. Many of us have been found wanting, however, for growth to happen, we must apply the lessons learnt. Great leadership, I believe, is being able to grow from one crisis to the next without giving up. That is how leaders are made.

Bongani Chinkanda,
Bravado Managing Director