Virtual and Social Leadership: Two Indispensable Skills

Virtual and Social Leadership: Two Indispensable Skills

06 Nov 20 4mins Jon Midmer


In a previous article, I argued that there’s never been a better time to invest in talent. I also pondered whether the skills needed to succeed over the next five years will differ from those required over the last five.

Over the last month or so, aided by conversations with clients, candidates and colleagues, I’ve given the matter some thought. Below, I put forward a case for why the skills needed to succeed as a leader in 2020 and beyond are not vastly different, while arguing that – in an evolving work and social context – there are two skills leaders cannot do without.

The Perennial Demands of Leadership

Leading companies has never been easy. Even in less volatile times, plotting a path forward while determining how to deploy capital and engaging teams was not exactly straightforward.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for almost everyone – individuals, companies and societies – the external environment has changed. Concerns for lives and livelihoods have caused governments to intervene, in many instances curbing citizens’ freedoms. In response, consumers have adopted new spending patterns, and companies have had to work hard to keep up.

Despite the upheaval the world has experienced in 2020, the majority of the sought-after leadership skills on JMA job descriptions have not changed too much. They still include the ability to come up with a compelling vision and strategy, to satisfy internal and external customer needs, to drive the top and bottom lines, and engage and motivate teams.

That said, it would be wrong to say that things are simply ‘as they were’. We would argue that there are a couple of specific leadership skills that have become even more important in today’s work and social context.

Virtual Leadership

The biggest, most obvious, change is that professional relationships are no longer primarily forged in person, but over a screen. Even when the pandemic abates, now that people have discovered the advantages of virtual working, I doubt we will ever fully return to pre-pandemic rhythms and routines.

For many, the new, online-first context has presented considerable challenges as regards engaging with colleagues and leading teams. Now that it is practically impossible to accurately read body language, and the ranks of leaders who have never met any of their colleagues face to face are swelling by the day, not only must leaders be clearer than ever on their tone and messaging, they must also stop trying to gauge online situations through an offline lens. They must be inclusive, humble and vulnerable enough to ask for feedback, without appearing to always need their team’s approval when tough calls have to be made.

As a result of the way in which relationships are now built and sustained, the emerging skill of virtual leadership is critical. What it fully entails will only become clear as the months roll on.

Social Leadership

The second skill we believe is indispensable for leaders to exhibit is social leadership. Gone for ever is the idea that business, politics and society run on parallel lines. The events of 2020 have encouraged individuals to bring who they are and what they believe to work as never before, and to feel comfortable discussing social inequities and injustices in front of colleagues.

Leaders can no longer pay lip service to being part of the solution. They are now required to listen to society’s and other stakeholders’ concerns, and respond with concrete measures. At a time when societies are more divided than ever and many individuals are struggling, to pretend the social context has no bearing on teams’ engagement and well-being is simply tone-deaf.

JMA is proud to work with clients with big hearts, who put their money where their mouths are. Since the pandemic hit, David Gibbs’ leadership of Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Habit Burger) has been exemplary, and a great example of social leadership.

David and his team have developed a ‘Recipe for Good’, reflecting the company’s priorities for socially-responsible growth and sustainable stewardship of its people, food and planet. Critically, they’ve confronted inequality head on and pledged $100m to unlock opportunity for employees and communities.

Outside the world of business, another example of social leadership is Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United striker (and my younger son’s idol), whose campaign to guarantee the most deprived children in the UK at least one decent meal every day when schools are closed has garnered broad public support and mobilised local communities and businesses.

Rashford intelligently and gracefully cornered Boris Johnson and his government – who initially denied his request – into releasing public funds. At a time when hundreds of billions of pounds are being doled out by the UK government to soften the blow of the pandemic, the tens of millions sought by Rashford pale into insignificance.

There is, therefore, a clear distinction between leaders who show concern and those who don’t. Social leadership is not a flash in the pan, however, and any leaders who fail to act or stick to their social commitments as they contend with the challenges from the pandemic will surely be called out.

2020 and Beyond

To succeed as a leader in 2020 and beyond, therefore, you need no fewer of the traditional leadership skills, while adding (at least) two new ones. Some might characterise virtual and social leadership as ‘soft’ skills, but I would disagree.

If leaders can’t become as effective in an online-first working environment as they were in a physical one, they will lose the faith and commitment of their colleagues. And if leaders fail to provide sustained social leadership in a world of intense public scrutiny, colleagues and consumers will spot this, and take their trade and skills to a competitor that does.