Deeper Leadership Lessons from COVID-19

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Home > Articles > Deeper Leadership Lessons from COVID-19

 Deeper Leadership Lessons from COVID-19

Vadivu Govind | General
July 15, 2020

The longer COVID-19 lasts, the more we learn how to adapt and live with it. Nothing is more certain than uncertainty and nothing is more important, than being an effective leader.

This article is being written in March 2020. We have no idea where we will be with COVID-19 when it is published. What is certain is that we can learn deeply from the outbreak for the long-term.

Vitamin sales have shot up. How long will this interest in immunity last?

Wise leaders think of employee health regularly as it affects the health of business, families, and our country’s resilience. Chronic lack of sleep 4 and chronic stress 1 can lower immunity. Singapore is reported to be one of the top sleep-deprived cities. 9 One reason for this is increasing demands from work life. A Cigna survey found that Singaporeans are one of the most stressed at work globally. 9

Giving employees access to counselling can be useful for those who are open to that. At the same time, leaders need to actively enable wellbeing everyday through their decisions and behaviours, rather than have a negative effect on employees regularly and give them access to counselling for the very problems they, as leaders, contributed to.

For example: What are working hours like? How frequently are employees expected to respond to messages outside office hours? Is corrective feedback delivered in a way that respectfully promotes learning, or through harsh means? How often is positive feedback given?

All this affects people’s daily wellbeing and stress levels. Wellness needs to be integrated into the culture.

Dr Emma Seppala, Science Director of the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education wrote a Harvard Business Review article, 6 Good Bosses Create More Wellness than Wellness Plans Do. In it, she mentions that hundreds of studies have shown that a culture characterised by trust, respect, kindness, forgiveness, and inspiration lead to employee happiness.

Caring about how people feel matters.

From my observations, emotions are not often paid attention to at many workplaces. COVID-19 has now brought emotions to the fore and my hope is that wise leaders will heed the call to care—post-COVID-19 too.   

 Due to the pandemic, people may experience grief, anxiety, hopelessness, fear, and more. They need safe spaces to share these and experience and practise empathy. Leaders can role-model this sharing by being appropriately vulnerable. They can practise and create a culture of empathetic and non-judgmental listening. 

With great sensitivity, and at a wise pace, leaders can then guide staff to see the personal growth and good that can come out of this situation. They can take action to allow more positive emotions such as hope, compassion, gratitude, and optimism to rise. They can start with healing and transforming themselves so they can genuinely embody these. Emotions are contagious and leaders’ emotions are especially so. 12, 13 Positive emotional contagion enhances creativity, cooperation, and task performance. 3, 12

According to positive emotions expert, Dr Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions can strengthen resilience, enable us to see more possibilities, and be more creative. 2 All these are needed for the long recovery road ahead.

Wise leaders can use this crisis to transform their workplaces into “healing organisations” which Professor Raj Sisodia, Co-Founder of Conscious Capitalism, says alleviate suffering and elevate joy. 10

With COVID-19, death lurks more in people’s consciousness. If we are skilful in how we learn from this, it can lead to powerful awakenings.

Learning from others’ deathbed regrets can help us prevent the same. If, as leaders, you do not want these regrets, then thinking of what this means for your staff is just as key.

“Not spending enough time with loved ones”—Through the 2008/2009 Lien Foundation survey on death attitudes in Singapore, people shared that this would be their top regret if they were to die. 8

“Being a slave to money” —this regret was noted by death and dying experts, Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. 5

When people are dying, they sometimes see life with sharpened clarity. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, former KPMG CEO Eugene O’Kelly wrote Chasing Daylight. 7 In it, he shares about the importance of relationships, appreciating people, quiet, simplicity, and living fully. He made efforts to build a more compassionate, people-centred organisational culture.

Philosophy educator, David Shapiro interviewed dozens of people in their 70s and 80s and found that:

“…those who had a passion for their work were those who felt their lives mattered. …They saw their work as spiritual, as a chance to serve others. They believed that what they did made the world a better place. It didn’t just satisfy their pocketbook or ego; it satisfied their soul.” 11

If leaders contemplated mortality with a positive, learning lens, our workplaces—and world—would be positively transformed. 

COVID-19 has affected countless lives. If we glean deeper meaning and learn from it, something good can come out of something painful.

1 Ann P and Stephanie W, 5 June 2017, The Effects of Stress on Your Body,  Accessed via

2 Barbara F, 21 June 2011, Are You Getting Enough Positivity in Your Diet?  Greater Good Magazine Online. Accessed via

3 Bob C and Raj S, 2015, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, Penguin Random House, United Kingdom.

4 Denise M, Can Better Sleep Mean Catching Fewer Colds? Lack of sleep affects your immune system, WebMD. Accessed via

5 Elisabeth K R and David K, 2000, Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living, Simon & Schuster, United States of America.

6 Emma S, 8 April 2016, Good Bosses Create More Wellness than Wellness Plans Do, Harvard Business Review. Accessed via

7 Eugene O, 2007, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, McGraw-Hill Education, United States of America.

8 Lien Foundation, 2009, Survey on death attitudes in Singapore.

9 Neo R W, 26 March 2019, Sleep-deprived Singaporean workers among most stressed globally: Survey, TODAY Online. Accessed via

10 Raj S, and Michael J G, 2019, The Healing Organization: Awakening the Conscience of Business to Help Save the World, HarperCollins Leadership, United States of America.

11 Richard J L and David A S, 2001. Whistle While You Work: Heeding Your Life’s Calling, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., United States of America.

12 Sigal B, 2011, For Better Results, Emotional Contagion Matters, Wharton@Work, Accessed via

13 Tony S, July 11, 2012, Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team, Harvard Business Review. Accessed via

Vadivu Govind is Director of Human Unlimited Pte. Ltd. The consultancy enables future-ready, life-affirming leadership and workplaces. Vadivu holds a Masters in Public Administration (Columbia University) and certifications related to topics such as workplace happiness, positive psychology coaching, and strengths development.






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