Leadership struggles in the virtual space

Head of New Markets for Insights, Mark Leisegang, reflects on how showing up in a human way can help leaders to adjust – and thrive – in a remote world…

The early stages of lockdown were possibly a bit of an adrenaline rush for leaders.

All of a sudden, there was a huge demand for leaders within organisations to take charge and find new, innovative ways of working against the backdrop of what was, and still is, a hugely challenging situation. There was no time to pause, or reflect, or gather their thoughts. They had to leap head-first into a course of action. They had to pivot into working from home, find new ways of keeping their teams connected, adapt to new technology, and somehow keep the business strategy on track. And they had to do all this while also, ideally, being courageous, calm, and resilient. And human.

For some leaders the pace of change was probably quite exciting. It’s likely that many leaders did initially thrive on the rush, and why wouldn’t they? It demonstrated that they were agile, dynamic, that they could successfully pivot even when dealing with one of the biggest global crises the world has ever faced. However, as things have gone on, some leaders have started to struggle – something that we’ve also seen in the wider political sphere. In a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, for example, 40% of managers and supervisors expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. So why are our leaders falling short in the virtual space?

One key factor can be attributed to lack of visibility and trust. In an in-house office environment, leaders can see everything that’s going on. They can see that their team are working hard, that they’re collaborating intentionally, that projects are being kept on track. Working from home means that isn’t so easy. In organisations where there is a low degree of trust around remote working, leaders may feel a degree of insecurity around not being physically present, which can in turn show up in bad day behaviours, such as micromanaging and helicopter leadership.

Of course, the extension of this line of thinking is that is that when working in an office environment, leaders themselves are visible to colleagues and clients and stakeholders. For those leaders who are used to heading up meetings, being the to go-to member of staff in a crisis, or just simply being a figurehead within their organization, that’s a tangible loss of status. Donald Trump wasn’t driven around his medical facility while still ill with Covid-19 for no reason, and UK newspapers haven’t run headlines asking ‘Where is Boris Johnson?’ just because. In leadership, visibility matters.

However, leaders can’t just show up. They have to show up right, and that means being accountable for everything they do. This is where self-awareness comes into play, and how understanding themselves better – incorporating everything from their body language to how they communicate with their teams day-to-day – has an impact. In times of crisis, such as in the example here, leaders shouldn’t be afraid to go off-script and put their human self before their corporate self.

We also need to be careful that they don’t just apply this compassion to those they lead. We shouldn’t understate the number of tough decisions we’ve asked leaders to make over the past few months. Retaining a sense of humanity while also having to make really difficult business decisions is a tricky balancing act, which can weigh heavy on people. What we must do is ask that leaders role model healthy behaviours as much as possible; that they “demonstrate how to maintain boundaries”, take vacations, and actively communicate that wellbeing is key for all employees.


Three tips for being a better leader in the virtual space:

1) Be vulnerable. Leaders may feel a degree of pressure to hold it all together and show up in a very polished way for their team, but authenticity is key to building better connections. More and more we’re finding that honesty, compassion, and clarity eclipse bravado and bluster.

2) Actively listen. Tuning into what your team is thinking is incredibly important, but it won’t happen by accident. Making sure you create time and space in the calendar to listen to, and leverage, the voices in your team and organisation will help to build trust in you as a leader.

3) Educate yourself. Learn what other organisations are doing well and tailor their methodology for your own business. Creative collision has become stifled in the virtual space, but finding new ways to support people to talk openly, share ideas, and brainstorm new approaches is so valuable.


Mark Leisegang is the Head of New Markets for Insights Learning & Development in Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. His passion is to be an instrumental part in creating a world where people truly understand themselves and others and are inspired to make a positive difference in everything they do.