“Resilient Leadership: Learning from Crisis” report

Resilient Leadership: Learning from crisis

This report focuses on the role of leadership for resilience - leadership that promotes and enables complex systems (in this case corporations and large cities) to function and thrive in the face of a major crisis.

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Executive summary

The ‘Resilient Leadership: Learning from Crisis’ project originated in a shared belief amongst the project partners that it will take a new type of leadership to create genuine resilience in the face of mounting crises – in cities, corporations or societies. We believe this form of leadership cannot be assumed – it must be learned and developed. Some of the most important opportunities for learning come from failure and crisis. But there exists no tried and tested method of helping leaders learn and hone vital skills while confronting a live crisis. Given the increasing uncertainty that the world faces as a result of climate change, globalisation, urbanisation and the rapidity of technology advancements, it is imperative to find new ways of learning in the face of these pressures.

In late March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world, we saw our opportunity to run a real-time, global experiment in this kind of leadership learning. Twelve senior decision-makers were invited to take part – seven from the world of global corporations and five Chief Resilience Officers from major cities on different continents. Using reflective learning as the approach, each week for sixteen weeks participants were asked to attend a half-hour online one-to-one conversation with an expert listener. As the pandemic unfolded on its way around the globe, valuable insights surfaced, were shared, reflected on by the participants and the project team, and refined into the lessons learned and key questions set out in the full report, from which highlights are shared here.

 

Empty New York street

Empty streets of New York at Times Square 42nd street during the Covid-19 pandemic. © tetiana.photographer, Shutterstock

Covid-19 timeline

Click the image to recap on the key global events of the 2020 pandemic.

Emerging lessons for leadership

From 16 weeks of conversations with our twelve participants and more than 75 hours of recordings, we were able to distil certain attributes of resilient leadership that were either demonstrated by the participants or emerged through the weekly cycle of conversations, reflection, analysis and insights.

The full report contains many lessons learned and the breadth and depth of these leadership reflections offer a valuable framework for consideration for all those in decision-making roles. Some headlines are shared here.

 

Resilient Leadership vs. Leadership for Resilience

The term 'resilient leadership' conceals two quite separate ideas and by separating them we hope to enrich discussion of this critical area.

Resilient Leadership

We see Resilient Leadership as describing a quality of an individual leader. Every leader is to some degree resilient – able to handle setbacks, undaunted by physical and mental fatigue, emotionally mature, etc. But if one wants to become truly resilient and capable of leading in the most testing of crises, there are – as we learned from our participants – certain attitudes and actions that are worth paying attention to. The metrics for such resilient leadership will be personal to the leader in question – some visible to people nearby, others only privately knowable by the leader.

Leadership for Resilience

On the other hand, Leadership for Resilience describes and leadership work that has the effect of enhancing the resilience of the organisation, institution or society in which the leader is working. While it helps if a leader is personally resilient, it is not essential in order for her or him to do good work towards the goal of the system’s overall resilience. Here the metric would be an assessment of system-wide resilience.

Cashier in protective mask, Thailand. © pixfly, Shutterstock

Leadership during a crisis begins in normal times

An early insight that arose in participant conversations was that, just as a person who has not taken care of their health was likely to be at greater risk from the Covid-19 virus than someone who has, so an organisation that has invested in building trust and the range of qualities and capabilities referred to in the adjoining table below will find it has many more options at its disposal when a major crisis arrives. If one knows that every one of these aspects is going to be exposed to a harsh light in a major crisis, it makes sense to invest well during normal times, in oneself as a resilient leader and in one’s organisation’s resilience. Very little can be changed or improved once the crisis arrives. This is day-to-day, patient work, but it lies at the core of what leadership for resilience requires.

Doctors, nurses, cashiers, drivers, volunteers and many other key workers, put their lives at risk and play a critical role in geting us all throught the coronavirus pandemic. Temperature Checks During COVID-19 Pandemic - Laoag Int Airport, Philippines, © Wikimedia Pubic Domain

Technical vs. personal/social

Faced with a crisis, any serious leader will be primarily focused outward and pragmatically, aiming to keep their organisation and stakeholders safe, their operations functioning and so on. These are the leadership tasks anyone would identify as priorities in a crisis. Our participants, however, while all referencing the critical importance of these kinds of preoccupation, and genuinely celebrating successes in any aspect there, wanted to talk rather more about the personal and societal dimensions of the organisations and people in their care. Though they often had to work to find the language appropriate to such reflections, as they are so little part of standard leadership cultures, we collectively concluded that this personal and societal dimension is every bit as important as the technical dimension if one genuinely seeks to build resilience.

What to attend to

Hover over the key points below for more detailed insights and reflections.

"Leadership for Resilience"

Leadership Strategies

Technical

Monitor and understand the crisis

One of the primary jobs of a leader is to see and understand the landscape and context within which their organisation must thrive. Because in a crisis this landscape changes often and at times dramatically, maintaining a credible picture of the context becomes a critical task for the leader.

Maintain operational continuity

It matters that one’s organisation keeps providing the services or products for which it exists and for which people pay. Failure to supply these is likely to have serious knock-on effects on many other organisations and individuals, let alone on one’s own sustainability.

Manage cash

Major crises bring with them extreme uncertainty. For any organisation that has long-term commitments such as salaries, rental and loan repayments, etc., the availability of cash reserves becomes supremely important. Covid-19 lockdowns meant that income streams that were taken for granted by many organisations, both public and private, suddenly dried up. The management of remaining cash flows was now a matter of survival and needed leaders’ closest attention, requiring them at times to make agonizingly difficult choices.

Leverage data

Whereas good analysis of an organisation’s financial status is commonplace and professionally well supported, the use of data and analysis to understand other critical changes within and around an organisation is still an emerging discipline. Several participants in this project observed how this pandemic, with its massive, interconnected uncertainties, accelerated their organisation’s journey toward the use of data and modelling as central elements of decision-making. Although data and models cannot provide full certainty about the future, they can be relied on to ignite the sort of pragmatic, evidence-based conversations that can help teams to reach agreement on the most sensible next steps.

I don’t think there will be another crisis in the city where the leadership don’t start with, "What does the data tell us, where are the data?" It’s such a great sea change. I said to some colleagues, "There are things that we’ve done now with data and Covid that have probably advanced by years our change strategy for getting the organization to be data-driven."

Deploy skills before seniority

The skills that matter most when a crisis strikes are likely to differ from those required during ‘peacetime’. While a leader may not be able to re-draw their organizational chart to suit each new crisis as it hits, they must enable staff with the right skills and temperament to take charge of emerging parts of this crisis landscape, and be willing to move people around so that the right person is holding the right challenge at the right time.

What kind of pandemic task team makes best sense for us? One that includes the necessary range of skills & expertise you might need in order to make good decisions for reorienting and keeping safe a large organization in fast-moving uncertainty. This extends beyond the health and HR experts, communicators, legal and compliance, to include the IT team and cybersecurity, etc. It doesn’t need to represent the organogram.

Plan early for what comes after

Although it may seem impossible to imagine this during the early phases, crises come to an end. It is a particular responsibility that sits with leadership to plan for when that the conditions of crisis will ease and eventually pass, even in the midst of the crisis. Several of our participants set up the equivalent of what has been called a ‘forward-thinking cell’ – a small group of people from across the organisation who were at least partially relieved of the obligation to focus on their normal line responsibilities so that they could devote time and energy to discussing and researching plausible and potentially generative ways out of the crisis – ways that might even add new strengths to the organisation and its relationships with the world. While recovery from the crisis has to be the most immediate focus, the pandemic caused all the project participants to explore some level of organisational re-invention in parallel, since recovery to the status quo ante was clearly not going to be optimal. Yet another level of exploration came in the form of questions about possible societal transformation, which could (or indeed should) accompany recovery.

Leadership Strategies

Personal and social

Demonstrate care

Amid the enormous operational and financial challenges any major crisis throws at a leader, it can be easy to overlook the intensely human dimension that arrives at the same time. Humans are genetically coded both to need care when under extreme stress or shock, and to want to give it to those around them. While good leaders care for the people in their organisations anyway, that care needs to be amplified during a crisis, sustained over time despite exhaustion, and channeled to ensure it reaches those most in need. At the same time leaders must be aware that many of their colleagues will be looking for ways to care for others, inside and outside the formal structures of the organisation. This spontaneous movement of care should be applauded, encouraged and at times actively supported with resources.

Build and sustain trust

Trust is any leader’s currency during a crisis. The more your people trust you and the more you trust them, the more options you have for swift, concerted action and the more likely you are to survive the crisis together. But it takes time to develop that trust, so the levels of trust that exist within your organisation when the crisis breaks will largely determine how much you will have to work with. When the stakes are abnormally high, as in a major crisis, people become automatically more closely attuned to issues of trust. If a leader acts with consistent integrity during a crisis – staying open, communicative, honest and vulnerable – they can add disproportionately to their own and their organisation’s reserves of this most precious substance.

Acknowledge others' and one's own vulnerability

Working within a large organisation, especially in a leadership role, one is expected to wear an invisible suit of armour, such that one need not feel wounded or knocked off balance by the many technical, professional and at times personal challenges that come one’s way in the course of work. It only takes a little self-reflection to realize that everyone has weak spots in one’s ‘armour’. They may relate to a deep-seated worry about one’s capability in some settings, a troubling problem at home or some difficulty with one’s identity.What matters from a leadership perspective is that this is a universal reality. A colleague with no vulnerabilities is a rare and possibly problematic individual. A leader does not need to know the details, but letting colleagues know they are accepted for who they are, vulnerabilities included, can greatly reduce the tension and anxiety that – especially in a crisis – will interfere with performance, trust and general well-being.

I think there’s no doubt my team is under pressure. I’m trying to do as much pastoral work as I can to motivate people, to not be hard on them. To push and to drive, but not to break. And trying to pull out all of the leadership qualities that I may have got over the past few years. It’s interesting for me just to know how the people close to me are observing me emotionally during this time. And these people, who’ve been with me through several crises, if I express a frustration I can see they think, “Is he asking me to come in and support him?” So I’m very clear to say, “This is not making me fall apart. I just need to express this, and you need to hear it. And now I’ve got it off my chest and I’ve
let it go.

Contain anxiety

It is normal that every crisis generates anxiety. Yet fear can easily disable individuals and whole groups if it is allowed to get a hold over the collective narrative. A key part of the leader’s role is to supply and maintain a supportive narrative, one that enables people to feel, for instance, that they are not lost, not doomed, but simply facing great difficulties together. It may be as simple as assuring them that “We will come through this together”. This requirement to contain fear is a cornerstone of any successful leadership in crisis, in that, if well done, it can release enormous positive energy amongst colleagues and their communities. But it demands in the leader an inner resolution and calm that cannot be faked (see ‘Be Calm’).

Encourage contribution

While the survival of one’s own organisation is the priority for any responsible leader, the pandemic made it starkly clear that bigger things may be at stake. Our participants saw that throughout their organisations there were many who wanted to step up and help run the organisation in such challenging circumstances, as well as many who wanted to contribute to their wider community in some way, whether during their private time or by leveraging the strengths of the organisation. Leaders do well to support these inclinations as far as possible. Giving people meaningful ways to contribute typically releases energy, goodwill and innovation.

Collaborate widely

One of the most striking outcomes of the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic was the widespread sense that “we’re all in this together”. With that perspective, many individuals and organisations realized that, to respond well, they needed to break down or reach across traditional boundaries and barriers and form alliances of action with others with whom they might have no previous relationship and might even normally be competitors. This assumption that the larger ‘we’ is what matters is a precious manifestation in times of crisis. Though the urge to collaborate does not usually last in this vibrant form, relationships and alliances formed in the heat of a crisis response can endure far past the crisis itself.

"Resilient Leadership"

Leadership Behaviours

Supporting the execution of leadership strategies

Assume authority, then delegate it where it can do most good

When a crisis breaks, leaders must lead. People need, and typically respond to, leaders who assume the authority that is theirs. Our participants found this simple fact occupied a good portion of their reflections on their response to the pandemic. Paradoxically, it also became abundantly clear, as the crisis deepened, that keeping decision-making power too close to the centre was sub-optimal and could even prove dangerous.Two levels of delegation became critical. The first was within leadership teams themselves. With a heightened need to monitor, analyze, change plans and communicate, it became obvious that leadership teams needed all hands on deck and a high level of collaboration and trust as tasks were shared out and responsibility delegated from the centre. The second, equally essential in a crisis, was the need to delegate more-than-usual responsibility out to the parts of the organisation closest to where the challenges were currently manifesting. Decision-making may be much too slow if it has to refer back up to the centre all the time. There is an art to delegation in such circumstances and it appears to hinge on the accurate allocation of trust and the streamlining of accountability.

What’s been really crystallized for me is that the most important thing I’ve learned to do - and I enjoy doing it - is to let others lead, to recognize that, especially at times like this, people want to step up, they want to be given more to do - so let it go.

Listen – stay in touch

The Covid-19 lockdowns meant many organisations re-oriented to having their employees work from home. In suddenly losing physical proximity, all the leaders we spoke with found they needed to – and indeed were drawn to – spend more time making sure they were in touch with their team members. Because being in touch could no longer be taken for granted, connecting with them and listening to how they were and what was preoccupying them became a priority. This is good practice anyway in a crisis, as new kinds of pressure and challenge will be experienced all over one’s organisation, and one’s most reliable eyes and ears are one’s people.

Attend to culture

A leadership team’s response to their employees and other stakeholders during a crisis is best underpinned by their understanding of the organisation’s culture. Under the stress that a crisis brings, the healthy elements of culture will act as vital nourishment and reassurance, while any rifts or toxicities that have been left unresolved will eat away at trust and make concerted action that much harder. Addressing their colleagues, a leader can speak directly to the best elements of an existing culture, reminding employees of the shared stories and values that bind them and give them meaning as they face this challenge.

Look for opportunities to innovate

Every complex organisation, large or small, develops inefficiencies and strays from its optimal purposes during the normal course of events. It is a form of normal organizational entropy. Crises offer the opportunity to re-tune all manner of systems, since change is suddenly top of the agenda. The wise leader knows to seize this moment, bringing to the fore their and their team’s best vision for the future of the organisation, given new circumstances, removing – or side-stepping barriers to change, and encouraging innovation at all levels.

Be calm

During a crisis It seems that all members of a group or organisation become increasingly alert for signals from each other – and particularly from their leaders - that things may be worse than they thought and that perhaps they should raise their own levels of anxiety and adrenalin. It thus becomes critical that leaders manage their own emotional responses to the crisis (without suppressing their authentic feelings and losing touch with them), and then communicate as calmly as they genuinely can with their colleagues. Calm seems to spread along the same channels, and almost as fast, as panic. It also has a health-giving effect on one’s body chemistry and well-being.

Communicate more

People want to hear from their leadership in a crisis. As one project participant put it, “The people we lead want to be led.” Communication begins as the lifeline of the organisation, reminding everyone there is someone at the wheel as the organisation collectively stabilizes in the earliest phases of a crisis. As the crisis unfolds and moves to subsequent stages, the value of regular communication from leadership remains high, though its purpose may shift from calming fears to preparing people for a longer-than-expected haul.

I think the people we are leading are looking for leadership, they want to follow. The work of leadership isn’t the work of management.

Reflect and learn as you go

The sheer pressure of non-stop events can leave even the most experienced leader with a sense of blurred recollection, and it can easily seem that there is not a moment to spare for slowing down and reflecting on ‘What happened? Why did it happen?’ and ‘How did I respond?’ But everything we know about learning and performance says that even a short few minutes of protected time can be invaluable as an aid to digesting and learning critical lessons from one’s experiences. The flip-side of the blur of events is that crises provide more opportunities for learning per day than are on offer in a year of normal problemsolving.

The future of leadership

Three questions to pursue

Standing back after the project had come to an end, and looking past its many leadership insights, it struck us that, along the way, three profound, transformative questions had become visible in the fabric woven from the many hours of reflective conversation with our front-line leaders. Each suggests a significant shift away from current practice. And each holds out the tantalizing prospect of a more satisfying and resilient future.

1

What might be missing from our senior leadership that youth could supply, and from the aspiring leaders of the future that experienced leaders could provide?

Leadership matters, particularly in a major crisis. Yet the pandemic has made it transparently clear that the conventional models of leadership are, at best, not fully fit for purpose. Younger members of the project team often remarked on how frank and vulnerable some of the senior leaders were being – something of which they had no experience in their own careers. Senior leaders seldom reveal their own inner doubts, and yet for these young professionals - aspiring leaders themselves – the opportunity to witness top leaders opening up in this way was surprising and empowering.

Is there a bridge of transparency we can construct between, on the one side, the deep experience of senior leaders in the public and private sectors, and on the other side the vision, ambition and energy of the young? There seems to be a hunger for this coming together, from both sides of the river, but as yet too few weight-bearing structures. Perhaps the bridge can only be designed and engineered by the two sides together?

2

What might happen if the leaders of cities and corporations stood in each other’s shoes from time to time, in between facing crises together?

Big cities, and the corporations that invariably inhabit cities and rely on them functioning well, are powerfully drawn together during a major crisis. Their interests become aligned in ways that sit in stark contrast to their typically transactional, even competitive relationships during 'peacetime'. In a crisis, as we found, public private collaboration becomes attractive – at times even essential - and barriers to it happening can be easily removed. We had corporate executives reflecting on how to increase the value to society of their company at the same time as Chief Resilience Officers were realizing they could learn from the world of start-ups as models for how to re-organise rapidly to face the crisis.

By having both Chief Resilience Officers and senior corporate executives around a virtual table during the Covid-19 pandemic it became clear that these two subspecies of the genus 'leader' have much more to learn from each other and to cocreate between them than is commonly understood. What will it take to increase the mutual understanding and resilience of these two critical forms of social organisation?

3

What if our big, influential organisations were to give strategic importance to the subtle, transformative art of conversation?

Our major cities and corporations will be critical determinants of our success in dealing with the waves of crisis that are set to come our way in the years ahead. How they position themselves to cope with shocks on behalf of their citizens, customers, employees and stakeholders will matter disproportionately. And yet, we would be wrong to assume that because scale counts, our arsenal of tools and approaches should be only organizational in size.

This project made it abundantly clear that the scale of the very personal is just as critical. How these twelve leaders reflected, thought and intuited into the future was – according to them – much enhanced by the surprisingly simple process of being in a weekly half hour of conversation with a trusted stranger. These days most ideas and narratives come to us through electronic media or text of some kind. An unmediated, person-to-person dialogue (even, ironically, online) can have a beguilingly fresh impact on both parties, and quite likely beyond.

How can the humble yet transformative conversation be reintroduced as a core part of any strategies for making our key organisations and infrastructure systems more resilient for the future?

 

The 15-strong team of Romanian doctors and nurses, who participated on a voluntary basis, arrived in Lecco, Italy, on 7 April 2020 for a deployment of almost three weeks, facilitated by the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism. © European Union,

Harnessing the power of reflective learning

For the participants only, a 4-page weekly summary was circulated with insights extracted from the 12 conversations of the preceding week by the project team.

A one-page weekly insights piece picked out one or two of the most interesting insights from the weekly summary', but without accrediting an individual participant.

A lively graphic summary accompanied the weekly insights piece, drawing on the weekly summary's insights.

A weekly podcast was recorded featuring a conversation between Seth Schultz and Peter Willis about the previous week's insights.

At the mid-term break, a substantial collection of insights was uploaded to the website in a separate page of 'Emerging Insights' with the participants duly credited.

Some six hours of dialogue each week was distilled down to a handful of key insights shared as text, a colourful graphic summary and a podcast conversation.

Speed, agility, simplicity and organic development

In a curious parallel process, the formation and evolution of this project mirrored what several of our participants told us they were discovering as they came to grips with the pandemic – that they had to adopt a 'start-up culture'. No matter how large and established their corporation or city administration might be, they realised that their only way to respond effectively, at the scale and pace the crisis required, was to think and act as though they were starting a new business, with all the rapid deployment, frequent changes of direction and absurdly high levels of energy and commitment that normally accompany such processes.

It took a mere 14 days for the project to go from an original concept being floated, to a team being assembled and the first participant being interviewed on 6th April. The core ideas underpinning the project design were immediately deemed good enough to warrant moving ahead and, with the pre-existing trust between all the key players allowing swift and easy decision-making, it is clear in retrospect that the team was seized with the widely-felt urgency of the times.

Podcast

All 21 episodes are available to download or stream on every major platform


Participants

The insights you are reading and listening to on this page were distilled from weekly interviews with the same twelve participants. We are grateful to our participants for taking time out of their busy schedules every week, and sharing their personal reflections and thoughts through this trying time. Please note that they did this in their own capacity, not as a spokesperson on behalf of their organisation.

Project team

Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 25, 2020. Hundreds of graves were dug in the Vila Formosa, which thought to be the largest cemetery in Latin America. © BW Press

In the participants' own words

The participants' insights over their 16-week journey through the Covid crisis, and as the project and the outside world evolved, are analysed and collected on our Resilient Leadership: Emerging Insights page.

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