While we will all be grateful to have 2020 behind us, as business and community leaders, we have an opportunity early in 2021 to pause, reflect on lessons learned, and think about how we may want to shape the definition and influence of our leadership going forward. 

The disruptive forces of 2020 have personally and professionally impacted us all, including our families, friends, neighbours, customers, colleagues and employees. Every leader has had their skills, values and beliefs challenged, including leaders of politics, business, spirituality, academics, health care, not-for-profit organizations, front-line efforts, community and government. 

COVID-19 has brought much upheaval, frustration, and even sadness into our personal and professional lives. The unjust deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor fueled loud protests around the world, including here in Canada to demand systemic change. The continued violence towards indigenous women, men and youth across the country, combined with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, have further heightened pressure on politicians and citizens for meaningful, sustainable change. In April, the devastating mass shooting in Portapique forever impacted the friends and families of the 22 fellow Atlantic Canadians that lost their lives in that tragedy.

The harrowing events of 2020 forced all of us to engage in difficult conversations and rethink how we interact with others. We have had to adopt technology more quickly, change the way we support the teaching of our children and shift our way of working, learning and leading. With new-found respect for front line and essential workers, we have had to rethink buying habits. We’ve also been reminded how important it is to embrace precious moments with our loved ones.

All organizations either struggled to continue operationally or found a way to adapt to stay afloat and in some cases, even grow. Strong leaders focused not only on the hard financial assets of their organizations, they also compassionately and caringly prioritized the mental and physical health of their employees, customers and constituents. They implemented safe return to work protocols and leveraged policies to allow employees and students to productively work remotely. These leaders challenged themselves and their leadership teams to ensure policies and systems are inclusive of the communities that their employees, customers and constituents represent. They adapted their communication and performance systems and then developed their leadership teams to lead in a new way. When evaluating options for the path forward, the strongest leaders demonstrated a willingness to listen to the points of views of others including customers, Boards of Directors, all levels of government, unions, and their employees.

As we settle into 2021, leaders across all sectors and disciplines need to reflect on the leadership qualities described above and continue to find ways to work together to continue to deliver progressive, innovative, flexible, and sustainable policies and systems. 

Leaders should expect and prepare to be asked tough questions by their organizational constituents on priorities such as equity and inclusion, workplace wellness and safety, leveraging of technology, innovation of product and service delivery, leadership development, and business continuity and risk mitigation.

Leaders, now more than ever, must be willing to ask for and accept feedback on their style, skills and abilities.  They need to authentically consult and collaborate with others to evolve policies and practices that impact customers, employees and other constituents and be genuinely open to inviting ideas that will challenge traditional systems and ways of thinking. 

As we begin a new year, there are some brighter lights on the horizon to strengthen our resolve. Vaccinations are beginning to be administered around the world and new habits are forming regarding masking, handwashing and social distancing to contain and prevent the transmission of viruses. Technological advancements have been expedited allowing more flexibility and convenience in many aspects of our lives. We are all learning the importance and value of community, and are having more conversations about supporting greater diversity and inclusion in our communities.  

While one cannot predict the challenges ahead, leaders who will continue to make the greatest positive impact will be those that take the time to pause and reflect on lessons learned from 2020, and then challenge themselves to commit to the behaviours, values and principles that strengthen their organizations, communities and the world around us.


Barbara Meens Thistle
Barbara Meens Thistle , CPHR
Senior Associate
Barbara Meens Thistle, CPHR works with organizations as a senior level strategic Human Resource advisor, providing guidance on strategy to create strong workplace cultures and strong teams. She has extensive experience as a senior executive within large, complex organizations, both in public and private sectors, providing counsel to senior leaders to help them achieve strategic business priorities through individual, team and organization wide leadership and talent development goals.