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Association leaders learned plenty of lessons in 2020. Among them: you need a different set of leadership skills to successfully lead your team through a global pandemic, social unrest and an overwhelming amount of uncertainty.

According to a CEMS study, leadership qualities that made people more human, like resilience and empathy, became much more valuable during the pandemic. Qualities like technical skills and authority, while still important, were viewed as less important post-pandemic.

Here’s a look at key leadership skills that became more valued during the COVID-19 pandemic:


Everything that happened in the pandemic — working from home, virtual learning, endless Zoom meetings — was new to pretty much everyone. Understanding their employees were experiencing a range of emotions while trying to juggle working in a new environment went a long way for many bosses.


According to Harvard Business Publishing, leaders were forced to rethink and reimagine their business model and immerse themselves in rapid scenario planning that covered both short and long-term goals.


In the CMS study, resilience was the leadership quality that saw the biggest leap in importance post-Covid. Prior to the pandemic, 13% of leaders surveyed ranked resilience among their top three qualities a leader should have. Post pandemic, that soared to 34%. 


Among the many uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 was the worry many employees had about whether their jobs would survive. It was important for leaders to stay connected to their employees through virtual meetings, one-on-ones or weekly bulletin messages to the whole staff.

Along the same line, companies that went from in-person offices to working from home required a new level of trust from leaders. According to Harvard Business Publishing, working from home required redefining work habits, and leaders had to demonstrate a higher level of trust and empowerment in their employees.

The future of leadership

The authors of the CEMS study interviewed groups of leaders and managers to come up with a set of recommendations for leaders to be successful and effective in a post-pandemic world.

Those include:

  • Work on yourself. Identify your strengths, and determine one or two core areas for improvement. Then take concrete steps to address those.
  • Create a safe culture and environment. Model transparency, accessibility, tolerance and empathy in all your communications and interactions with your employees — and expect it from others.
  • Build resilience. Team members face more pressures than ever, both mental and emotional, which can cause stress and strain.Be tolerant of failure and reframe it as learning.
Related: What the pandemic taught us about leadership Learn More >

A new CEO playbook?

Many of today’s association leaders came of age studying and experiencing a classical model of leadership. But if this is your first dance as a CEO, where’s the script? A panel of association leaders and CEOs at SURGE forward came together to discuss this during “Leading Through the Pandemic: A New CEO Playbook — What’s That?”

In this session, panelists discussed how recently appointed CEOs are navigating the post-pandemic landscape, how they are reimagining and harnessing new ideas with their staff and board and how they achieve resilience in the face of uncertainty. Become a Sidecar member today for 24/7 access to all of our recorded webinars, conferences and interviews.

Heather Nolan
Post by Heather Nolan
June 4, 2021
Heather a skilled communicator with expertise in social media and marketing strategy, brand management and journalism. She uses storytelling and audience growth skills to help companies showcase their brand and expand their reach.