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belonging; complexity leadership; control; emotion; emotional intelligence; empathy; organizational communication; power


Leader–follower interactions during times of complexity are critical in managing rapid change demands and ensuring organizational sustainability. Between early 2020 and 2023, many organizations worldwide witnessed an unprecedented need for organizational change that rapidly transformed the work environment. This study focused on understanding the contexts of leader and follower interactions during times of change using the shifting organizational landscapes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Applying a qualitative methodology, we collected data from 12 leaders across multiple business sectors in Africa, Asia, and the United States using semi-structured interviews. We then transcribed the interviews and applied an iterative phronetic approach to analyze the data by engaging complexity leadership, emotion in organizations, leading with empathy, belonging, and power and control as theoretical lenses for data analysis. We analyzed how individual leadership experiences during a time of complexity fostered a shift in leadership paradigms and leadership styles within organizations. The findings indicated that due to the unprecedented situations faced during COVID-19, leaders shifted from leadership styles that applied a lens of power and control to an adaptable model that follows the framework of complexity leadership and applies a lens of leading with emotional intelligence. The findings provided a nuanced understanding of the leader–follower relationship by allowing for a complex and varied description of how individuals discursively situate their experiences around issues of power and control. The findings also showed that leaders became more intentional about leading, purposely changing their leadership style to create an environment that supported open communication, belonging, empathy, and awareness. The findings also suggested that when leaders adapt elements of emotional intelligence in leading during times of organizational complexity, they do so with the goal of motivating others and creating a feeling of connection with followers. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.


This is the published version of the Linvill, J.S.; Onosu, G.O. Stories of Leadership: Leading with Empathy through the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sustainability 2023, 15, 7708.