What remote leadership reveals

03 August 2020

Sandy Wright & Milo-Arne Wilkinson

Sandy Wright is Program Director and Curator and Milo-Arne Wilkinson is a Behavioural Scientist for the Eleven Executive Leadership Program from Kaplan Professional.

What are the leadership characteristics you see in yourself as working lives transform in response to COVID-19? Leadership experts Sandy Wright and Milo-Arne Wilkinson explore different styles of leadership and how they are likely to be holding up in this crisis.

There is something in the human psyche that craves leadership in a crisis.  Under threat our tolerance for shades of grey is low, and that craving for leadership becomes binary. We either want someone who will tell us what to do and provide certainty (autocrat) or we want someone who will lift us and guide us to the promised land (messiah).  Preferably we want both at the same time.

So, what can you do as a leader now? The internet is awash with articles about leading teams remotely and working from home – 42.5 million results in 43 seconds in fact!  Let’s try another tack in examining your leadership and how your character is holding up under pressure. Where are you on the autocrat/messiah continuum – are you fulfilling your inner autocrat or becoming the messiah you always believed you were? Or are you blossoming by recruiting both personas at the appropriate times?

Let’s explore how these personas can play out in the workplace.


Pre-COVID Peter was a well-respected, long-standing business-owner running a tight ship. He hand-picked a team who are dedicated, hard-working and loyal. Customers regularly rated the business highly and were happy to recommend it to others.

Peter was not a fan of flexible working but recognised he had to allow limited flexibility to be seen as a ‘modern’ leader. When the government mandated lockdown, he was shocked. Aside from the need to equip his workforce with the ability to work from their homes, he quickly noticed the loss of proximity and inability to see them working created anxiety for him.

Peter mandated daily online meetings which started out well with good-natured discussion. Soon however, the meetings took the form of a report from each person about what they did the day before. Then he would ask them to write down what had to be done before the next meeting. In his intensity he failed to notice the eye rolls and body language of his people, nor did he know that they were communicating secretly on a What’s App group where this loyal work force were rapidly losing respect and even mocking him.

Peter’s anxiety in this crisis unleashed his inner autocrat. If he doesn’t recognise this and change his behaviour, his leadership may not survive, not only this period of COVIC crisis, but will also have long-lasting effects when all this is over.


Kim ran a consultancy business based on online bookings from her many consultants. Kim relied heavily on her reputation and charisma in dealing with the consultants, many of whom were inspired by her. The business attracted loyal customers who developed strong relationships with the consultants. Pre-COVID things ran like clockwork and communication amongst Kim and her team was high and regular.

During COVID, Kim stopped contacting the consultants directly and instead posted inspirational quotes and wisdom on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. There was no curiosity about how any of them were faring individually, nor did she encourage any sharing of experience.  She made little effort to support the consultants with JobKeeper and instead told people to access JobSeeker.

On social media she hinted there were surprises in store when lock down eased and sure enough a week before re-opening she announced new premises with new equipment. Not one consultant had been ‘consulted’. She made the assumption that they all still wanted to be part of the team not realising that some of them had become so disillusioned and disconnected with her they were talking about creating a rival business.

Meet Heather

Heather had only recently been appointed to a more senior role in her organisation. She knew she was going to have to prove herself because hew new team was made up of former peers, only some of whom supported her move to a leadership role.

Then came the lockdown. The organisation was sending everyone home in a few days. She called her team together and laid out a strategy for handling the crisis that she had worked on all night. She made it clear which decisions were mandatory with no negotiation, which required negotiation and agreement from everyone or if no agreement then she would decide.

Heather then talked about how this strategy was designed to give people structure and safety so they could express fears and hopes and feel confident in being heard. In consultation with the team they crafted a series of messages to go out to staff appealing to their ability to rise to the occasion, how trusted they were and how much faith the senior team had in them.

With her team Heather set up a rhythm for online meetings with a variety of purposes –  some were task reporting and information sharing, some were designated as 20 minute ‘coffee’ meetings where checking in and personal news only was shared.

Heather’s ability to shift gears in style and recognition of different needs won respect. She was able to curb the extremes of autocracy or messiah behaviour while recognising the advantages in small doses of both.

What can we learn?

How has the pressure of COVID-19 revealed your character? Here’s how to perform all the roles your people expect of you:

  • Find your areas of structure and autocracy to give some certainty to your team.
  • Assess the content of your meetings – is there a variety of purpose and length of time? Online meetings tire the brain so make sure the content is worth it and not just a one-way process that serves only your needs as a leader.
  • Be aware of your language and messages. When was the last time you inspired your people with language that stirs their better selves? Remember the words you use determine the emotions and behaviours of others. As a leader, a ‘command and control’ style will not work. The world has changed and telling people what to do will no longer work or earn respect.
  • Ask yourself honestly, what is your character under pressure and what to you want it to be?

Ask yourself what you would like people to be THINKING, FEELING and DOING as a result of dealing with you.

  • Be prepared to feel and show uncertainty and vulnerability because it will only improve your own honesty and external credibility. People are longing for that positive message, but we will not believe the positive messages if we are not transparent about the negative parts as well.

We serve as crisis leadership experts and have seen a procession of challenged leaders over the past six months. Our observation is simple, those that are willing to admit they are struggling in this climate are more likely to adapt and adjust than those whose words say ‘I’m fine’ but their actions show otherwise.  Remember whatever impact a leader has on a culture can take 18 months to undo.  Intentional leadership is now the ‘new normal’.

Sandy Wright is Program Director and Curator and Milo-Arne Wilkinson is a Behavioural Scientist for the Eleven Executive Leadership Program from Kaplan Professional.