Coronavirus: Six principles for leading in a crisis

20 March 2020

By Dimitiros Spyridonidis

As I write cases of COVID-19 are growing across the UK and the global pandemic has disrupted travel, while tourism has dried up, healthcare systems around the globe are under severe pressure, factory output in China has fallen off a cliff and policymakers are playing catch up.

Globally, significant recessionary forces have gained momentum in recent weeks that involves substantial retail disruptions along with supply chain disruptions. We've seen businesses struggling to know how to respond and realise that the political and economic standard of what is needed to be done is rising by the day.

We’ve seen increasing concern among employees about what they should be doing, what might happen next, and in an increasingly interconnected economy, every country, every sector and every business faces risks and is in crisis.

Workforce and security issues are at stake too as there's going to be a big impact on a lot of people's personal finances and associated mental health issues for workers, particularly those on low income, renters, in the gig economy and so forth.

Let’s not ignore the personal impact of the crisis, as well as the obvious physical health impacts on both individuals and their nearest and dearest family members will often need to consider and assess the impact on mental health, including the stress and anxiety that the pandemic is causing. We also need to think of the pressure on operational teams to continuing to deliver the business while being isolated from the usual face-to-face support of teams and managers.

During these tough times we rely on our leaders more than ever, but it's a challenging time to be a leader. So, here are six principles on leading through the COVID-19 crisis.

 

1 Lead your connected system

Leadership thinking in a crisis needs to be much more systemic. Do not forget the role of the increasingly interconnected economy during periods of crisis. Global supply chains have become so intertwined and so complex that nobody can predict how significant the impact of COVID-19 might be.

Leaders need to switch their mindsets from the individual or the organisational level to the broader interdependencies their organisation has, rather than just focus on their own line of business.

There are many challenges around business continuity, and the choices made now will help build resilience and agility through periods of extended uncertainty. Those decisions have to include all stakeholders to maintain the viability of the system the organisation is part of or even systems.

For example, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders have had to make decisions that significantly impact their bottom line, potentially shutting down their business, which impacts their staff and their families.

There's been sporting seasons cancelled, theme parks closed, conferences postponed and the list goes on and on. Those were all decisions that leaders had to make, but they made them with other people's best interests in mind. 

Often in a crisis the reason we can't come to a conclusion on what decision we need to make is because we can't get over the personal cost to us. But as we always say leadership is losing the right to think about yourself, so if you're going to lead well it has to be with others’ best intentions in mind.

 

2 Lead with facts not fear

During such tough times we want our leaders to lead with wisdom. There's a lot of noise out there right now from the media and others, there's a lot of fear about the coronavirus.

There is a torrent of misleading information about the disease circulating; official health advice competes with conspiracy theories on social media, while fake cures are pushed and false claims about how the virus is transmitted are spread. In fact, fake news could prove as deadly as the virus itself.

So, leaders need to get the right kind of wisdom to help their businesses deal with the situation. Don't lead with a heart of fear, but with facts.

One of the best ways you can lead others during a crisis is to lead yourself well, so try to get educated on what's actually going on. And surround yourself with others that are like-minded with the same appetite for facts and wisdom.

 

3 Don’t lead alone

Nobody should do leadership alone. Who are the people that you can go to in a crisis and say: “Hey, here's what I'm processing."

A leadership group who is not afraid to voice their opinion and share new facts will help you in your decision-making processes. Leaders need to be self-aware and acknowledge that during a crisis you're under a lot of stress and you're being tasked to make very tricky and very difficult decisions that are not necessarily clear. Having reliable voices around you will help to lead with wisdom.

If you don't have that group, you're in grave danger as a leader and you will make poor decisions during periods of crisis. And then as a leader you need to become better at communicating and collaborating.

Firstly, collaborate internally within a business, but also we're going to start to see more collaboration outside the business, both with people in the same sector, but also with organisations in the same or different geography as you.

A lot of this obviously depends on organisations having people in the right place and being able to continue to move people around. And that's going to have big implications for workforce planning. And we're seeing that most acutely at the moment in vulnerable sectors like leisure, retail and of course airlines.

Focus should be on three specific areas of a business: the front office and how it is interacting with your customers, and what it is seeing in terms of how customers are ordering differently, or examples of new customers coming into their marketplace because areas have suddenly popped up that weren't there before.

Then there is the middle office which could be your manufacturing, logistics, or service operations that you have and looking at communicating with your suppliers, working out what product is coming in, when it's coming in, and how you are then going to allocate that across your team and across the operations. And finally the back office to see how your support services are coping.

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4 Speed trumps right

During periods of crisis leaders not only need to speak up, but they also need to act. Leaders need to realise that there's no superhero that always makes the right decisions during a crisis. But you will have senior executives and managers who want to manage this crisis for the organisation 24/seven, it can't be done, it will burn people out. So it's vitally important that you have a delegation structure and watch for staff burnout.

If you need to be right before your move, you will never win, but the problem we have in our society is that everybody is afraid of the consequence of error. A leadership group who is not afraid of error is asking questions, drawing conclusions, experimenting, exploring new ideas and widening their areas of thinking.  

To respond to an unprecedented global health crisis, leaders must have the ability to take risks, experiment, ask questions and observe things. By testing old assumptions, experimenting with new possibilities and activities, and interacting with different kinds of people and unfamiliar ways of getting things done leaders can change how they think – they change who they become, let go of old habits and reshape their self-image as they realise what they’re capable of.

 

5 Be visible

During a crisis there is often a rising sense of panic and sometimes a lack of advice can create chaos and confusion. During these times it's more important than ever to speak up and to lead as leaders.

Even with your staff working remotely a leader needs to be visible, appear in control, and be a re-assuring presence during such uncertain times.

You've got to do something that will make a difference for everyone, provide hope and tell people it's going to be okay.

Usually anxiety is rising for a number of reasons. In the case of COVID-19, one is the virus, but also the state of the economy, with businesses shutting and people losing their jobs, panic can takeover and staff can lose sight of the organisation’s objectives.

Leaders should understand that you are not just reacting to the virus, although it's the focal point, but also this panic.

Short-term objectives to get through the crisis need to be communicated and repeated. Leadership teams have to be visible regularly and often reaching out and engaging with employees. It's much harder to spot a personal issue that somebody's having, when you're not physically with the individual, so try to keep people in contact through various channels,

We are certainly learning that agility is key with everything moving so fast, and are constantly emphasising the importance of people showing leadership and keeping a calm head. Calm minds will prevail during periods of crisis. And this means not only at the top leadership level but throughout the organisation.

 

6 Learn for the recovery

Hopefully your organisation will emerge in tact after the crisis, but there will be lessons to be learned for the next one and even for how you operate in normal times.

How do we ensure we've got the right skills in the right place at the right time during this period. Some organisations have already implemented an agile workforce management capability with underlying analytics that can quickly adapt to long, medium and short term changes in demand. 

Others are also adept at flexing between full-time and part-time contingencies and working with third parties. However, I would say that very few organisations are likely to be ready for this level of disruption for a prolonged period of time.

Specifically, to the COVID-19 situation, the outbreak in the UK may mark a little bit of a revolution in remote working.

Although we've seen a big transition to remote working for a while, this whole pandemic has led more people to start having to work at home. Having the ability in many jobs to have that flexibility and to shift workers to home wherever possible, might be a lesson for leaders going forward.

More broadly speaking, in China the coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked the "testing" of robots and drones in public, as officials seek out the most expedient and safe way to grapple with the outbreak and limit contamination and spread of the virus. Leaders need to see new ways of 'doing things' that can disrupt the existing status quo.

Related course: Executive Diploma in Strategic Leadership

Dimitrios Spyridonidis is Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Course Director for The Warwick Executive Diploma in Strategic Leadership.

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