February 4


What 2020 Taught Us About Leadership

By Sara Canaday

February 4, 2021

blind spots, communication skills, emotional intelligence, leadership, leadership behaviors, leadership skills, professional development, professional success, self-awareness

I’ve always believed that challenging experiences help us to grow. From that perspective, 2020 offered us a learning opportunity like no other. I don’t know about you, but I really hope 2021 involves a little less learning.

So now what?

While it’s tempting to block out the whole year and focus on the future, I do think there’s value in reflecting on 2020 and uncovering what it taught us. Here are seven things leaders can take away from the experience.

1. Let your purpose and values guide your decision-making in times of chaos.
I worked with many leaders who said they’d never felt so drained by their circumstances. (I think we can all relate to that!) What helped to keep them grounded was their ability to reconnect with their purpose and values. They used those in real-time as a filter to ensure their choices aligned with their broader vision. When nothing else made sense, that’s what got them through.

2. Make your employees’ well-being a top priority.
The pandemic upended all our lives professionally and personally, prompting leaders to become more sensitive to the needs of their employees. They realized the importance of “checking on” rather than just “checking in.” When leaders embraced that more personal role and provided support to those feeling the stress, their teams became more cohesive and emotionally connected.

3. Push decision-making deeper down into the organization.
As 2020 disrupted the usual processes for making decisions, executives opted to give field leaders and customer-facing employees the authority to make in-the-moment decisions. The results? Overwhelmingly positive. Crucial business decisions were not held up, and customers got quick resolutions to their problems. Field leaders were entrusted to make bold moves, and employees thrived with the new sense of trust from their managers.

4. Don’t let borders keep you from hiring top talent.
After talking to some IT leaders in India, I noticed a common theme among those who were finding ways to leverage the shift toward remote work. These leaders recognized they were now free to remove the geographical parameters for hiring top-tier professionals. By searching for the most qualified and experienced people who could contribute to their teams—regardless of location—they tapped into a larger talent pool and gained an unexpected competitive advantage.

5. Elevate the way you design and hold meetings.
In 2020, leaders found themselves much more conscious of their team members’ time and energy when it came to group meetings. Instead of using virtual team meetings to inform, instruct and delegate, they learned to reserve those online forums for calibrating, collaborating and brainstorming. By taking a different approach, they were able to increase efficiency and the sense of community within those remote gatherings.

6. Encourage virtual learning and growth.
Many studies confirm that online professional development skyrocketed in 2020, and we saw a significant number of in-person events shift to virtual as well. I suspect that trend will continue, so vetting the best offerings for you and your employees will be a key to upskilling and supporting the career growth of those on your team.

7. Acknowledge and appreciate your team members’ contributions.
Employees racked up significant overtime in 2020 as they tried to establish new routines, pivot on short notice, and brainstorm on seemingly unsolvable problems. I urged leaders to be more intentional about noticing those efforts and expressing appreciation. According to their feedback, those acknowledgements were vital in keeping employees engaged and encouraged.

Even though 2020 is now (thankfully!) in the rear-view mirror, many of the challenges we are facing in 2021 are similar. At least so far. But if you can apply the leadership lessons we all learned last year, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Sara Canaday

About the author

Sara began her journey working full-time while she earned an MBA. As she climbed the ladder of corporate America, she repeatedly observed a surprising phenomenon: the most successful people weren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ or best job skills. She recognized instead that career advancement was much more closely linked with how people applied their knowledge and talents — their capacity to collaborate, communicate, and influence others.

Today, Sara is happily fulfilling that commitment as a keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. These venues have given her the opportunity to mentor and support thousands of people in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.

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