“Curiouser and curiouser!” – What has 2020 taught us about leadership at work?

Rose Bryant-Smith
November 11, 2020
Rose Bryant-Smith

2020 can be called a lot of things, none of them very positive! The surreal journey of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) comes to mind, as we reflect on the year that will soon come to a close. The book provides a charming lens through which to consider the challenges and U-turns, and how our workplace practices, values and leadership have stood up to the test.

1.”Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

This year the phrase ‘social distancing’ made it into the 8th edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. According to Streem, ‘unprecedented’ is one of the words that has significantly risen in popularity of use in Australian media in 2020. No surprises there! I thought ‘pivot’ might also appear…

This year it often feels like we are dealing with ‘six impossible things breakfast’, just like Alice. With bushfires, COVID’s incredible health, societal and financial impacts across the world, and now the USA election, we’ve all had to ‘pivot’ to get through ‘unchartered waters’ in these ‘uncertain times’! The pace of change has been huge. Our leaders and managers have needed grit, compassion, and practical wisdom to guide their teams.

2. “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

What worked for workplaces in 2019 certainly didn’t work in 2020. What we previously thought was the only way to do business – synchronous work, everyone working in the same place, and Zoom being considered an inappropriate medium to have deep conversations – was redesigned completely. In many industries, we found totally new ways to stay productive and connected.

Throughout her adventure in wonderland, Alice proved to be adaptable, tough and self-reliant, resilient and creative in her problem-solving. As have we.

3. “We’re all mad here.”

The Cheshire Cat encouraged Alice to accept that ‘mad’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many teams have been able to embrace their quirky sides, enjoy each other wacky Zoom backgrounds and accept the pets, kids and housemates who’ve wandered behind our colleague in online meetings.

Challenges have hit pretty much everyone in 2020 – even the most independent people have needed to rely on others in unexpected ways. Connectedness has sprung up in ‘spoon villages’ on nature strips, RUOK calls to colleagues, silly themes for virtual drinks with the team on Friday night, generous leave entitlements and flexible working-from-home arrangements. The goodwill and adaptability of Australian workplace leaders has surprised us.

4. “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We have all worked incredibly hard. (Congrats! Only 6 weeks until Christmas!)

Enough said.

5. “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Some companies might previously have hoped that having quality policies and conduct rules were enough, by themselves, to achieve a compliant and risk-managed workplace. The challenges of 2020 have put working relationships, visible leadership and workplace culture in the spotlight.

We have all needed to work harder to stay connected. We’ve done our best to be creative, to listen and to look after our colleagues as they work remotely. Our teams have built compassion and mindfulness in how they work together.

We have needed to learn new technology, to be more deliberate in how and when we engage with each other, to continue our professional development online, and to reassess which of the workplace practices of the past we want to take forward.

2020 has been “curiouser and curiouser”. 2021 will hopefully be simpler and easier for all – and we can take quirky, connected, flexible and ‘curious’ leadership forward into the future.

About Rose Bryant-Smith

Rose is passionate about building ethical and productive workplaces. She leads Worklogic’s consulting projects on organisational values, risk management, business ethics and corporate governance. Rose also creates digital products to build better teams and is an acclaimed speaker and author.

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