The COVID-19 leadership test: How leaders perform has never mattered this much

Active Ownership versus Activism – What’s the role of shareholders?
03 April, 2020

The future of work is upon us now. COVID-19 is not a case study for leaders. We are enacting a real-life and real-time health emergency for the foreseeable future. This is not a test, and how leaders perform has never mattered as much as it does right now. This is when leaders can thrive, even in the most uncertain of times.


The current conditions shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic are a real-time, live leadership test (or assessment centre scenario, as we call it). The current conditions we face allow for the examination of the skills and psychological state we bring to the situation to determine whether we can perform outside of our comfort zones, while dealing with extreme levels of uncertainty and ambiguity.


In an assessment centre scenario (ie when being tested for leadership capability), age, gender or race has no influence on the outcomes. Nor does COVID-19 discriminate on these terms or the circumstances we now find ourselves operating in. 


So what are the human intelligence skills and mindsets we should be practicing today to navigate these conditions and help us thrive now and in the future? Furthermore, how can we draw upon these skills to navigate our personal circumstances and fulfil the wider responsibility we have as parents, partners and community members?


So, how are you doing?

When Mercer Evolve assesses leadership we usually test candidates for current and future skills included in leadership capability frameworks.  Drawing on research, the future-of-work narratives and global talent trend studies, the consensus is there are FOUR key areas where we will see leaders proving their worth, all of which are on full display right now:

  1. PEOPLE – in managing remote working and a network of distributed teams
  2. PRACTICES – in how we learn and how we think about organisational structure and hierarchy 
  3. TOOLS – building systems and standardising the use of tools to embed team-centric operating models
  4. PLACE – work anywhere, work with distributed teams anywhere, connect through online tools anywhere. 


Having the smarts will always be important. However, what are the ‘soft skills’ we can display today to help us come out the other end to be even stronger in this trying time. The lens by which we observe the current situation will have a huge impact on how we show up and therefore, mindset becomes equally or maybe even more important.


In an assessment centre context, for leaders to perform at peak and to deliver on each scenario objective, it is vital they can respond effectively to the immediate demand and pressures of the situation, as well as the ambiguity in which they find themselves. The way leaders handle the pressure has a substantial impact on their performance, problem solving abilities and how they not just survive the assessment, but thrive under these conditions.


Drawing from our database of high performers (in the context of assessment centres) in combination with the future of work predictions, we know there are eight skills that great leaders demonstrate which we can put into practice immediately.



The eight human intelligence skills leaders should be employing right now:

1. Empathy and emotional intelligence
Empathetic and genuine leaders lead with heart and create a safe work environment where all ideas can flourish and transparency builds openness and trust. In particular, they practice high self-awareness, active listening, knowing when to flex communication style and how to navigate different scenarios. They are able to turn the bad and ugly situations into opportunities for growth, change or learning.

How to display this now:

  • Walk in the shoes of others and see things from their perspective
  • Listen – hear what people are saying or not saying
  • Be open with communications – balance the message and think of your audience
  • Reframe situations to support personal growth and learning
  • Stay highly attuned to the way you are showing up and/or reacting to events and people around you.


2. Humility
This is not about you. Leaders with humility understand they are part of a bigger picture, treat others with respect and see things from the perspective of others. Not knowing and saying so is a tendency. They seek others out when they need help, and build networks of support.

How to display this now

  • Admit if you do not know or do not have the answer
  • Be comfortable with being vulnerable; ask for support
  • Bring your whole self to conversations; the new norm has broken down barriers like never before as we bring people into our homes whilst we work.


3. Collective success 
These leadership traits reflect the ‘servant leadership’ philosophy and a set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organisations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Effective leaders have waved farewell to individualism and heroic leadership. Instead of thinking “How can I win?” they approach work with a collaborative mindset looking to make situations a win-win for everyone.

How to display this now

  • Use ‘we’ not ‘l’
  • Simply care. Ask others how they feel and to share their concerns
  • Set up collaborative opportunities where possible – share the problem and build the solution.


4. Adaptability
Great leaders easily adapt their behaviour and approach in response to changing circumstances. They find change easy and accept it as the norm. They willingly let go of plans and readjust these as a way to respond to changing conditions. They plan for obstacles and look for ways to overcome these difficulties and stay the course, despite setbacks. 

How to display this now

  • Ask yourself – what has changed? Build awareness
  • Flex your behaviour as the situation requires
  • Find different ways of achieving outcomes.


5.  Navigating complexity
Top performers do not wait for the full set of facts to emerge before determining what to do. Facts may not become clear within the necessary decision-making timeframe. Instead, they use their intuition in combination with continually collecting information, as well as assessing situations from multiple vantage points, drawing from different perspectives. They extend this analysis stage to putting in place constant feedback loops to understand how the responses work and readjusting as needed.

How to display this now

  • Try to make intuitive sense of situations, informed by whatever data or information you are able to get at the time
  • Understand the impact of big and small decisions
  • Look at things from many angles, and how things are interrelated
  • Apply common sense, think logically and do not act prematurely.


6. Curiosity
Being open-minded is the first base. Assumptions are put aside here. Curious leaders ask questions and seek to understand rather than to know. There is a willingness to try new things, break habits and do things differently. They have a tendency to learn from all situations.

How to display this now

  • Use the ‘five whys’ approach – ask a question, then ask why, perhaps even five times until you get to the bottom of it
  • Be open to different approaches; try something different
  • Be reflective; take the learnings.


7. Influence for the greater good

Now more than ever there is an opportunity for our leaders to demonstrate what leading for the greater good looks like in practice. Great leaders will think beyond their own interests to the interests of those they lead and serve, and extend this to the interests of communities and the wider world. By taking a long-term view, they will keep in mind the broad impact of their day-to-day decisions and lead ethically. They will step up to the responsibility to think beyond things that are greater than ourselves, that benefit others, representing the standards of wellbeing for us all and acting as a citizen of the global community.

How to display this now

  • Be guided by strong moral and ethical standards 
  • Live your organisational values
  • Balance the needs of all – employees, customers, shareholders and the community
  • Now is the time to implement a purpose-driven strategy. 


8. Resilience
Rather than crash in the time-pressured situation of an assessment centre, resilient leaders approach the situation with optimism and a deliberate calm while facing into the problems. Even better, some seize the opportunity to create the new and break from traditional ways, displaying strong adaptability and change orientation. 

How to display this now

  • Employ strategies to help you handle the pressure 
  • Monitor your stress levels and do things to reduce this – ensure that you are not ‘always-on’
  • Build ‘hardiness’ – adapt positively to challenging circumstances and develop coping strategies to overcome obstacles; regulate your emotional responses
  • Don’t just be strong and stable, be positive.

Stay up to date on our resources that help organisations navigate COVID-19



Working with you through challenging times

Whether it was through the global financial crisis a decade ago to the COVID-19 impact that hit Asia since early January, Mercer has helped and will continue to help our clients navigate through the complexity and ensure your decisions today can boldly shape your future. If you wish to discuss any of your people or workforce implications in greater detail, please reach out to your Mercer consultant.




Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career
Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career

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