Leveraging Culture and Leadership to Successfully Return to Business

June 30, 2020
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Leveraging Culture and Leadership to Successfully Return to Business

Two key factors are greatly influencing pandemic responses and outcomes across the globe: culture and leadership style. As businesses begin to reopen and return to “normal” operations, it’s vital they understand the roles that culture and leadership play in doing so seamlessly and effectively.


The first step is to understand that different countries around the world have responded differently to COVID-19 due to underlying cultural factors. Although no culture is perfect, some countries are clearly faring better in their pandemic responses on key health markers. We can also imagine that they will do better on economic markers as they return to normal.

In terms of the country rankings, the U.S. leads in case rate increases, followed by Brazil, Russia, India, and the UK (Johns Hopkins University, June 22, 2020). On the other side of the coin, most Asian and African nations have done well in their mitigation efforts, with only South Africa appearing in the top 20 nations in case rates. The cultural and leader-style factors that appear to be critical for a positive or negative outcome on COVID-19 case rates are:

  • Independence and autonomy (U.S., UK, India)
  • Independence and autocracy (Russia, Brazil)
  • Consensus and interdependence (Asia, Africa)

From this, we understand that countries with high levels of independence coupled with an autocratic or populist leader style have had worse outcomes in the pandemic regarding case rates and, to some degree, death rates (The U.S., Brazil, and the UK lead the world in COVID-19 deaths).

What does this have to do with business? First, businesses and leaders exist and develop within a cultural context. Therefore, culture informs how leaders think and respond to a variety of situations, including the changes to their business caused by the pandemic. Second, we can point to research (GLOBE study, 1999, see table below) that suggests certain types of leadership characteristics are valued across all cultures and, when leveraged appropriately, create better outcomes during a crisis or when coming out of it.

What should businesses avoid? Top-down strategies developed by small groups of senior leaders are less likely to unearth, be aware of, or adequately plan for the unique circumstances of specific segments of their employee populations who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

To be specific, emphasizing more values-based and team-oriented leadership has proven to be more effective than more autonomous (independent) or autocratic leadership styles. Values-based and team-oriented leadership styles foster a higher degree of collective and inclusive work, shared idea creation, and buy-in, which are assets at any time but appear especially important during these times. Conversely, leaders must be wary of cultural and stylistic factors that have set countries back during this pandemic and should actively avoid employing them as they reopen their businesses.


As companies design their return-to-work strategies, increasing employee engagement and productivity will weigh heavily in plans. Leveraging the tenets of values-based and team-oriented leadership can be a catalyst for improving both areas.

Specifically, this means creating an inclusive environment that highlights and leverages the value of a diverse range of voices. This enables greater participation in and ownership of solution development, which is critical given the complexity of the decisions being made, coupled with the high potential for unintended consequences going unseen in the rush to get back open.

So, what can you do to create concrete action based on value-based and team-oriented leadership? Below are some examples of short-term and long-term actions that can enable better outcomes for businesses navigating in a crisis.

Immediate action:

  • Leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Companies should look to target ERGs, frontline workers, and hourly workers who may have been disproportionately impacted in the crisis to better understand the impacts of work and COVID-19 on their personal and professional lives, including their ability to return to work.
  • Cast a wide net. It’s important to talk to a wide variety of the employee population, outside of just leadership, in order to get a comprehensive and accurate view of the situation and how it will impact each team and department.
  • Employ key data. A key tool in a company’s toolkit is the data and facts. It is critical that the data being used be leveraged in a very transparent manner to inform and reassure employees about the steps the organization is undertaking.
  • Level set. According to recent polls, the majority of workers are in no rush to return to their workplaces. Communication transparency will be important to ensure that all teams, across all levels, are on the same page about the situation and are informed about any changes that will be implemented.


  • Create more diverse teams at the top. Diverse boards and diverse leadership teams ensure that a broad spectrum of voices are not only represented but also are being heard at senior levels of an organization. These diverse voices add to the perspectives and ideas in the room and also when sufficiently represented in the room, can influence decision-making outcomes that produce better social and financial results for the business.
  • Leverage ERGs to solve business problems. As a general resource, ERGs are underleveraged by businesses. We have identified the necessity of utilizing them in our immediate efforts related to COVID-19 reopening plans, but they represent unique perspectives that would be beneficial in solving any business problems longer term.

Taking action such as the ones outlined above will set companies apart and propel their reopening plans ahead of those that do not. This is truly the benefit of having a culture that amplifies a broad array of perspectives to enable decision-making and planning.