In the next few months, global companies of all sizes will be looking to increase the support and competence development of their leader-managers, throughout all ranks and management positions. These leaders are tasked to empower their teams through a time of extreme ambiguity and uncertainty of business and work. The route to recovery in business confidence can really only begin when a vaccine is found and distributed. Even the most optimistic estimates admit that the wait will still last for several months.

Having identified both new and old leadership needs for these times, companies will look to the global community of leadership developers for a plan. Solutions need to be applied fast, cost-effectively, and remotely across branches and multinational teams.

Many of those looking out for pragmatic solutions will be disappointed. Mainstream development support providers will not be able to answer the call. Their operations are limited by development-thinking that rests entirely on instructor-led development practices: offsites, face-to-face coaching, conference-day workshops. These are great tools – for another time and (a) place. In just a matter of months, some of the most unsinkable and timeless leadership development practices have become relics from a bygone age when companies were able to bring their international leader-managers together in offsites without jeopardizing their health. Faced with the danger of losing business and prime talent, few companies have the luxury to wait for a return of the ‘normal’ leadership development set-up. They need to find new solutions.

Providers of online training will claim to have a straigth-forward solution. Their offer: Pre-designed, one-size-fits-all e-learning courses to be completed individually, in isolation, boredom guaranteed. This type of courses should not be relied on to bear the brunt of leadership development work – most evidently because they typically lack a crucial connection to the team-context of the leaders taking the course. Leadership learning does not happen in virtual courses alone.

But there are leadership development providers who work differently. Those who bring the best of both worlds, by combining established research-based approaches to leadership-learning at work with digital solutions that enable remote deployment. These providers do not approach ’leadership’ as a traditional textbook subject to be taught. They recognise that previous work-life experiences and team dynamics of each participant leader have shaped her beliefs and practices into patterns that are rarely changed by completing ‘coursework’ such as lectures and readings. Instead, they understand that leadership practices can only change through action, discovery and reflection at work.

These realizations have inspired a ‘third way’ in leadership learning, based neither on expensive and logistically difficult offsite workshops, nor on rigid e-learning courses, but on engaging and versatile quests whereby leaders search, try out and discover new leadership behaviors. Quest-type learning is empowered by constant dialogue and reflection within and across teams, and by supervision by an online learning-coach who gives feedback and tips along the way. Unlike face-to-face approaches that limit leadership development to cohorts of typically 15-25 participants, a digital quest format allows for a participant to personalise and undertake her own leadership quest equally smoothly irrespective of group size, even in very large organisations. Moreover, the focus on learning through action and interaction means new leadership practices get both adopted and acted upon in the same process during a leadership quest. The impact of this is directly visible as accelerated change in the company.

The key features of the quest approach to leadership development make it by far the most applicable to today’s context. On the one hand, companies and leaders will need to create practices that can be quickly and flexibly applied to any combination of remote and office-based work. On the other hand, the current difficulties are deep and long-running, but as the quest approach lends itself perfectly to digital presentation and support, it is both viable for immediate adoption and resistant to extended and tightened travel bans.

The nature of the quest approach is that of a learning-journey fuelled by interpersonal exchanges and personal discovery. In trying circumstances where other approaches falter, leadership quests will develop change-resilient leaders and provide leadership growth exactly when and where it is needed the most. This needs to be the new plan for global leadership development in our time.