Virtual Business Leaders

Dr Chris Heunis, TBi – Team Building Institute, May 2020

In these unprecedented times, our quest for certainty is being challenged by ambiguity. The world – and our understanding of organisational leadership – is changing.

Rediscover the essence of corporate leadership in unusual circumstances.

Now that we are becoming familiar with the great equaliser, COVID-19, we will appreciate the true value of leadership and whether current leaders are leading in the true sense of the word. Being the CEO, a member of Senior Management or having sacrificed everything for the proverbial corner office may have given us the idea that leadership constitutes power, leverage and control – in short, a position in a hierarchy. However, this version of leadership has changed and the leader’s ability to truly lead, influence and communicate is now being tested.

Our space has shifted, interdependent relationships is the commodity of the future.

Transforming organisational culture

How do we transform culture remotely? Order, control, respect, discipline and obedience were subtly introduced and maintained by the physical layout of our ‘executive monuments’ to strategically influence and enforce behaviour, benefitting those who understood the rules of ‘getting ahead’ by ‘playing the game’. This analysis may seem harsh and perhaps debatable. Perhaps this scenario was an unintentional reality, but what one cannot deny, is the fact that our ability to influence, to motivate others to ‘move’ is now being challenged.

Feel, think and behave

These are behavioural principles that are the ingredients you may require as leader to survive in the virtual world.


The concepts of feeling, sensing and experiencing conjure up associations with heightened awareness. To feel, suggests an optimal engagement of our senses. Now that we are limited to telephone and video conferencing, understanding, or feeling the state of mind of others will become a critical skill. This is a skill we can all acquire, although for some of us it will be easier than for others. Before we can delve into the “how” of this, we first need to understand the “why”.


Managing and motivating from a distance requires one to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge one’s own vulnerability and that of colleagues. A new appreciation of equality is emerging, my breath matters, washing my hands matter, staying home and changing my ways matter; basic rules that apply to all of us. Those that serve, became overnight heroes (health care workers, cashiers at super markets, farmers, etc.).  Being vulnerable is perceived to make us weak and strategic if we want to hide the obvious, but, when vulnerability is acknowledged we become human and above judgement. Once your vulnerability is acknowledged, you will rise to higher ground and evolve from dependency to interdependency. The challenge the virtual leader faces is  to get team members to acknowledge and appreciate vulnerability as the underlying principle of interdependence. In other words, as current CEO or Manager you have to be humble and truly seek to understand those you lead, not the other way around,… the tide has changed.

Thinking – how

The above taken into account, we are now ready to explore, how does one create a spirit of interdepence? 

We are quite aware of the fact that our behaviour affects the way others see us and will affect buy-in. What leaders may not know is how their way of thinking (style of thinking) affects behaviour. The Palestinian writer Edward Said, in his 1993 collection of essays, Culture and Imperialism, suggested that nobody today is purely one thing and he called upon us to recognise that, “It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about ‘us.’”

Let us take a closer look at how one can effectively  lead remotely. The physical and mental aspects of one’s reality influence each other. Each of us have tendencies derived from our accumulated experiences, which manifest in the way we see and experience our reality. Reality constitutes interplay between our inner world and the physical world. We have all developed thinking patterns as we confront ourselves with possibility, followed by probability and taking action. This culminates in habits and styles of thinking. Awareness of this dynamic process between mind and brain determines a degree of presence. The first step to understanding others, and leading them, start with self-understanding – in other words, understanding how your style of thinking can assist you to create and environment of trust and hope.


When hope is present, action follows. The above confirms that a business leader’s success is determined by his or her ability to influence others by understanding how his or her thinking preferences affect others. 

How do you find the right words to get the message across? How do you get colleagues on the other side of the world to understand your message, so that they will execute tasks effectively? Now that you have a clear understanding of your own thinking preferences, you are ready to “seek to understand”. You have to be brave enough to reach out.

Virtual team management demands the ability to apply convergent, divergent, critical and feeling-based thinking. The business leader has to deliberately pay attention to the world of his or her audience with an open mind to direct energy and information, from their internal state, deeply into his or her own world. The biggest challenge is to let go of the feeling that you know everything, or that you control outcomes. The virtual world demands trust and the willingness to embrace vulnerability. Leading in a world of uncertainty may take you into directions no one can predict: discomfort, a lack of control and even feelings of incompetence.

Now, more than ever, the higher purpose of the organisation, business, company, firm, or industry, steered by strong virtual leaders, will be respected and understood: to collectively achieve a shared goal to the benefit of all, in a fair and compassionate manner.

A discussion on this topic was held as a virtual meeting on 28 May 2020. The following points summarize the outcome of this exchange between participants.

  • Virtual leaders need good digital world capabilities.
  • Virtuality is a place without a space, not being seen does not mean not contributing.
  • Virtual leaders have to focus on the connectedness of people and understand their state of mind. 
  • Virtual environments may mean moving forward with less people, but old barriers are being be broken, such as between business and labour.
  • Sustainable motivation depends on people finding meaning. Care has to be more intentional; the crisis is more of an equalizer; old solutions do not work anymore. 
  • Leaders have to lead through the crisis and not stop at the immediate challenges the crisis brings along, but consider long term impacts like severe economic contraction. 
  • Virtual leaders must realise that they are still role models and should adapt to new ways of setting example.
  • A digital footprint is important to keep leaders in touch with their followers in a disrupted world, but do not play Big Brother.
  • In this disrupted world a possible shift for leadership may be made from teams to individuals.
  • Basic principles still apply in virtual leadership. How do we get those principles to be understood and applied? Virtual leadership is still a relationship. Focus on strength-based leadership where you focus on the strengths of the individual or the team. 
  • Leadership is about mind, heart and hand; perhaps we are too concerned about hand and forget about the hearts and minds of people which can be addressed well in a virtual relationship.
  • Even though physical proximity will be possible as the Corona virus crisis is resolved, some environments will remain virtual or hybrid.
  • Virtual models may just be what economic contraction may require.
  • Older people tend to hold on to leadership power and where they are in control, younger generations may leave and become lost for the enterprise. Virtuality is a challenge for conservative mindsets, more reliance on younger people to work in the virtual space will be emerging.
  • Virtual leaders thrive on change, uncertainty and connectedness.
  • Basic principles of leadership will remain, but transitions in style may be expected.

Dr Chris Heunis is the CEO of the Team Building Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. He is a behaviourist, and believes that the success of business leadership starts with being mindful of the needs of others.

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