What High-Performing Mid-Level Leaders Are Doing Differently Post-COVID and Why It Matters

By Erin Wilson Burns, Leslie Kawai | July 3, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • High-performing mid-level leaders prioritize strategic perspective, emphasizing the importance of understanding future trends and making informed decisions to navigate uncertainties effectively.
  • RBL's research highlights the increasing significance of critical-thinking skills like anticipating future needs and inspiring confidence, in driving organizational value amidst changing environments. 
  • Organizations should invest in developing strategic-thinking skills among mid-level leaders through learning opportunities and executive support, enabling them to align with organizational goals and drive stronger stakeholder results.

Looking at what sets high performing leaders apart from other leaders is different than understanding what overall leadership behaviors drive organizational value. At its most basic, it’s a way to focus in on how to recognize what top performers (who drive the most value) are doing that other leaders are not. It answers the question: “What are the leadership attributes and behaviors that are unique to high-performing mid-level leaders?” 

If we can isolate and understand what makes high-performers more effective, it can help focus how we hire and develop mid-level leaders to be better able to consistently deliver the results investors, customers, and other stakeholders expect.

This article shares the results of findings about how what characterizes high-performing mid-level leaders has shifted post-COVID based on the same methodology we used to look at high-performing first-line leaders

Strategic perspective is more important for today’s high-performing mid-level leaders.

The most notable and consistent finding in looking at behaviors that predict high-performance is the significantly more important role that having a point of view about the future plays. In the RBL Leadership Code®, we refer to the behaviors that support a leader’s ability to have a point of view about the future as the Strategist domain. It includes 9 of the 67 total behaviors and is an important component of leadership at all levels of the organization.

Pre-COVID, the Strategist domain was less relevant in determining high performance for mid-level leaders. Just 10 percent of the top 20 high-performing behaviors were related to Strategist (and they were lowest ranked of the twenty). The domain itself was ranked 3rd of five in predicting high performance. In other words: pre-COVID, strategic perspective was not irrelevant, but the degree to which a leader successfully engaged in Strategist behaviors was not a significant predictor of whether they were likely to drive high performance. 

Post-COVID this has significantly shifted. Thirty-five percent of the behaviors in the top twenty are related to Strategist. And now the Strategist-related items area all the highest ranked, with the domain itself ranked 1st of all five Leadership Code domains in predicting high performance. 

Additionally, several Personal Proficiency behaviors related to critical-thinking skills that support good strategic thinking also became more significant predictors post-COVID: the ability to see the broader implications in data and the ability to make tough decisions.


The changes of the last four to five years have had a profound and lasting impact on everything from supply chains to customer and employee expectations. Most organizations are still grappling with how best to create long-term value for stakeholders in the face of economic and political instability, rapidly changing social expectations and technological innovations, and accelerating environmental and demographic changes around the world. 

Mid-level leaders are positioned where they must make strategic assumptions about how those changes may play out in order to direct the work of their teams. Leaders with the strongest ability to do that are those who are aware of the important signals in the external environment, have an opinion about how to create value that is credible and informed by the information they receive from their leaders and their teams, and have the confidence to make decisions and inspire buy-in. These skills are best position them to more effectively navigate the uncertainty about the future that is facing so many organizations today.

The increased importance of understanding the macro-environment and having a point-of-view about how their part of the organization contributes to the value chain from the perspective of customers, investors, communities, and other stakeholders reflects the increased ambiguity and flux mid-level leaders are managing in the post-COVID world.


Understanding what high-performing mid-level leaders do differently and better and identifying gaps and opportunities for improvement can help your organization drive stronger stakeholder results. 

Here are three key strategic-thinking skills areas characteristic of top performers that all mid-level leaders should develop to drive stronger organizational value. Evaluate the degree to which your mid-level leaders have learned and are applying the following skills:

  1. Anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s customers: mid-level leaders must understand how changing customer needs and other trends affect how their business operates and have a clear point-of-view about how to bring the organization’s strengths to bear on the things that will most benefit customers and investors. 
  2. Engage the organization in new directions: mid-level leaders must involve others in their organization in exploring how this future vision of the organization shifts the work that their part of the organization does today and will do in the future to build commitment to future directions and realistic plans for how to make it happen. 
  3. Inspire confidence and enthusiasm: mid-level leaders need to be able to articulate the direction of the organization in a way that inspires confidence that it will be a success and that helps people feel personally invested and committed to helping achieve it—and gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.

Additionally, executive leaders can play a significant role in helping mid-level leaders develop critical strategic-thinking skills by proactively:

  1. Synthesizing and then sharing information about the external environment with the people on their team. 
  2. Investing in development opportunities for mid-level leaders to deliberately build strategic-thinking skills, including coaching, learning and development programs, peer-supported action-learning programs, etc. 
  3. Engaging in regular conversations with their mid-level leaders about how the organization’s overall strategy is (and isn’t) changing in response to changing stakeholder needs and external environment. 
  4. Clearly and consistently articulating what work is not as important so that mid-level leaders have more time and space to think clearly about what work their organizations are doing and how that needs to evolve or transform.


We believe this research provides important, data-based insights on how to build mid-level leaders with strong strategic-thinking skills that will deliver exceptional value to employees, customers, investors, and communities. As organizations help mid-level leaders build strategic-thinking skills and their leaders engage them in regular conversations about strategic priorities and how those are evolving, mid-level leaders will be better positioned to direct their teams and resources to the work that creates the most value for customers and investors.

To discuss how this research can help you build an evidence-based leadership brand and culture that increase value for your stakeholders, contact us to be connected with our leadership experts.

For more mid-level leadership research insights, click here and here. For first-line leadership research insights, click here.

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 20 years of experience in leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design and transformation consulting.

About the author

Leslie is a principal with the RBL Group. She is an experienced executive coach who combines cognitive-behavior research and leadership development to help leaders and organizations drive business results through high performance.

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