Students from EADA Sustainability Club have been speaking to a range of professors and experts from the EADA community to discuss how we can learn about COVID-19 and the implications are for sustainability and business. In this interview, Professor Ferran Velasco provides insights on the implications of the current health crisis for both government and businesses. He describes the role of ethical leadership in times of a pandemic and discussed whether learning can provide an opportunity for sustainability.
Professor Ferran Velasco specialises in leadership, competency development and emotional intelligence. As part of Sustainability Week, he taught the elective Ethics and Effectiveness: The Challenges of Good Leadership, introducing how to manage conflicting goals and complex decision-making to reconcile ethics and effectiveness.
What does it mean to “do the right thing”?
Governments are facing challenging public health and economic crisis, which require rapid and decisive actions. Velasco explains the ethical dilemmas they face: do they value the utilitarian approach (creating benefit for the greatest amount of people such as saving businesses and jobs) or follow rule-based ethics (saving lives at whatever cost). The longer the lockdown, the more it hurts the economy. When these ethical dilemmas become evident and the government’s position is not clear, it can cause mistrust among citizens.
Velasco uses the U.S. as an example, where the government began the crisis by favouring the economy at the cost of sacrificing minorities and vulnerable groups (such as the elderly or citizens with pre-existing health conditions). When the government hesitated and began establishing enforced social distancing policies, the public became mistrustful and unemployment has significantly increased in the U.S. So how can a leader act ethically in either scenario?
Healthy businesses thrive in healthy communities
Business leaders have been forced to acknowledge the importance of their communities in the wake of COVID-19. With the spread of the pandemic, companies have been increasingly interested in creating value that serves not only its shareholders, but all of its stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and society at large. With this in mind, we have seen surprising responses from businesses during the pandemic, such as Coca-Cola, which began manufacturing protective face gear, and Pernod Ricard, which began producing hand sanitiser in its factories.
Ethical people vs. ethical managers
Leaders do not have a code of ethics for times like these – so how do they know what is the right thing to do? Velasco details that ethical leadership involves two dimensions: the ethical person and the ethical manager. The first refers to the leader behaving with integrity, according to values and moral standards and leading by example. The second, the ethical manager, refers to the leader ensuring that the organisation is also acting ethically.
To do this, the leader must effectively communicate and make these values and moral standards visible, develop a code of conduct that clearly explains them and make sure that all employees are trained to fully understand and comply with the code. Both dimensions of ethical leadership contribute to knowing what the right thing to do is, and both are necessary.
Velasco explains how ethical leaders who demonstrate good values and do the right thing create engagement from employees. When staff are proud of their company, they are more motivated, leading to better results and business performance. COVID-19 has led some businesses to engage in CSR initiatives, which, as Velasco points out, have “created self-awareness among managers and employees about their responsibility in contributing to social welfare, an awareness they may not necessarily have had before the crisis”. Now ethical leaders may be more sensitive to the value of sustainability and to the other shared global challenges we must tackle together.
The challenge of emotional intelligence
COVID-19 has disrupted a lot in our lives, and Velasco hints that “it is likely that some of the changes will stay in the long-term, like working from home”. Working from home poses another challenge for ethical leaders and managers. How do we keep fostering the soft skills that we have developed from human contact and working closely with people, such as empathy, reading body language, and interpreting others’ emotions? How do we keep fostering these behind a screen?
Despite being more technologically ‘connected’ than ever before, remote working combined with the heightened emotions brought on by the pandemic, mean that now more than ever is the time to develop your emotional intelligence. Velasco explains how research shows that “emotional intelligence predicts superior performance in leaders”, but how does this translate online?
Velazquez recommends a few tips to enhance your soft skills, many of which can be implemented while working remotely:
- Be attentive and be extra aware that everyone is included in the conversation and is contributing.
- Check-in on your teammates, even for a one-on-one chat. Listen to others and offer support.
- Bring emotion back into the workplace: be open about your own concerns, ask questions, and encourage others to do the same.
- Understand your own emotions and manage others’ emotions in the team.
- Be empathetic, motivate, and encourage others. Patience and understanding are key.
Baldwin, R. & Weder di Mauro, B. (2020). Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis: Act Fast and Do Whatever It Takes. CEPR Press. https://voxeu.org/content/mitigating-covid-economic-crisis-act-fast-and-do-whatever-it-takes
About the author
Julie Colibeau is currently enrolled in the International Masters Sustainable Business & Innovation and is one of the contributors to the EADA Sustainability Club Newsletter. She holds a BSc in Management from the University of Bath (U.K.). Julie speaks English, French, Italian, and Spanish and has a background in media and humanitarian innovation.
About the interview series
In this series of interviews, contributors to the EADA Sustainability Club Newsletter explore how the role of business in society is shifting and adjusting to these unpredictable and complex times with COVID-19, covering topics such as digital data technology, emotional intelligence and global governance. Other articles include: Managing the Transition with Professor Joan-Miquel Piqué, Technology as an “enabler” with Richard Ferraro and Back-to-basics with Associate Dean Jordi Díaz.