In recent memory, the world has seen profound changes in almost every facet of business and society, and the change is ongoing. Though it’s taken center stage — with good reason — the pandemic isn’t the only urgent issue facing humanity. In a torrent of contemporary challenges, COVID-19 accelerated some changes that were inevitable, brought the need for others into stark focus and served as a backdrop for the constant flux of an evolving world.
The business community has a starring role to play in every major issue of our time, and the opportunities and risks in each are significant. Taking an active role in shaping the future is more important than ever as leaders navigate and co-create the “next normal.”
Whether we will have the Roaring ’20s or the Groaning ’20s remains to be seen, but strong leadership will be essential as companies learn from the past, confront urgent issues head on and plan for the future.
For many leaders I’ve listened to, the relatively sudden impact of the lockdown brought to the fore their awareness of our common humanity. - Lili Powell, Julie Logan Sands Associate Professor of Business Administration
Since March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a series of cascading crises in global health, employment, social justice and political divisions has laid bare for many managers and leaders just how porous the lines between life and work really are. Each wave compounded the next, leaving many workers caught in cycles of uncertainty, anxiety and stress. On a very large scale, this has been a moment of truth for seeing what’s real and choosing to respond with “business as usual” or with leadership kindness.
“For many leaders I’ve listened to, the relatively sudden impact of the lockdown brought to the fore their awareness of our common humanity,” explains Lili Powell, who holds an uncommon joint appointment at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and School of Nursing. From her vantage point as Julie Logan Sands Associate Professor of Business Administration and Kluge-Schakat Professor in Nursing, as well as the director of the Compassionate Care Initiative, Powell sees an important opportunity for leading mindfully.
A challenge in any crisis is managing one’s own stress response and reactivity in order to see clearly and choose wisely, as Powell explained in her three-part series for Darden Ideas to Action, “Leading Mindfully: COVID-19 and the Big Human Pivot.”1 Managing oneself with mindfulness leads to leading mindfully when one employs similar skills to influence the collective attention of a team and organization so they, in turn, can make wise choices. As she wrote in a book chapter, leading mindfully is very much about showing up with an optimal balance of grit and grace, in which “grit” represents the focus and determination that mindful practices foster and “grace” represents the calm and kindness that compassion practices foster.2
Powell realizes that stereotypically, business leaders have tended to privilege grit over grace. This even shows up in common language used in business that suggests that business is about hard numbers and mental toughness, while the human elements are soft and touchy feely. “In light of recent crises, leaders I’m working with recognize they need to operate in a more holistic way,” Powell says. “Yet this does not necessarily come naturally to them. And performance metrics and rewards systems in business often valorize toughness over humanity. So the burning question is whether the pull toward leadership kindness will be maintained even after the COVID-19 crisis abates — or whether leaders will shift back to ‘business as usual.’”
Powell believes that the context for leadership has fundamentally shifted and that a “going back to normal” mindset would be a mistake. Instead, she sees the opportunity for defining a “next normal” during which leaders have a chance to see the shifts that have occurred and intentionally craft a new blend of grit and grace in their own leadership skills repertoire, one that fits the new and evolving circumstances.
Powell’s work has concentrated on building and applying skills of mindfulness, compassion and leadership communication, particularly during high-stakes presentations and interactions, such as crucial conversations. As she wrote with colleague Jeremy Hunter, a leader can make micro-moves in the moment to do the inner work and the outer work of leading mindfully.3 For example, training in mindfulness and compassion outside of critical moments can help build the experiential inner work muscles to notice, shift and respond more mindfully and compassionately in the moment. These inner moves build capacity to then make skillful outer moves, such as naming an elephant in the room, reframing the way to see it and inviting another person to respond in a new way. With practice over time, such moves can become second nature and consequently lead to changes in levels of trust and psychological safety in a team.
“Compassion is a skill, one that individuals can cultivate in themselves, and it can be baked into organizations,” Powell points out. According to Monica Worline and Jane Dutton’s Awakening Compassion at Work, compassion skills exercised at an interpersonal level can be leveraged by baking compassion into organizations through rituals, routines, structures and systems. Fundamentally, they make a case for growing compassion as a competitive advantage that improves a number of measures, such as employees’ sense of psychological safety and trust, that translate into reduced levels of burnout, error and turnover, and increased levels of productivity, creativity and innovation.4
“The real promise of leadership kindness comes from understanding that compassion or the lack thereof isn’t just something that’s interpersonal, but structural and systemic,” explains Powell. “If we can accept that racism is systemic and institutionalized, it stands to reason that justice and kindness can also be systematized. But the challenge in the short term will be to help individuals see the benefits interpersonally so they can build the capacity to mold teams and organizations that can follow suit in an authentic way.”
- 1Lili Powell, “Leading Mindfully: COVID-19 and the Big Human Pivot, Parts 1–3,” Darden Ideas to Action, March–May 2020, https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/leading-mindfully-COVID19-and-the-big-human-pivot-part-1.
- 2Lili Powell, “Showing Up with Grit and Grace: How to Lead Under Pressure as a Nurse Clinician and Leader,” Self-Care for New and Student Nurses, eds. Dorrie Fontaine, Tim Cunningham and Natalie May (Sigma Publishing, 2021).
- 3Lili Powell and Jeremy Hunter, “How to Recapture Leadership’s Lost Moment,” Leader to Leader 98 (June 2020): 51–57, https://doi.org/10.1002/ltl.20519.
- 4Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, Awakening Compassion at Work (Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).