Resilient Leadership – Round 1: 6-17 April 2020

“Everything un-gels at a time like this” – and being un-gelled, presents the management of any large organisation with novel challenges as well as rare opportunities to leap forward.

We kicked off Round 1 of the ‘Resilient Leadership’  interviews last week with most of the world in lockdown amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and concerns about the long-term impacts of the crisis on society and economies around the world. In Round 1, we spoke to four participants who are helping lead their organisations’ response to the crisis. All of them have been involved in those responses for over 8 weeks – some as far back as mid-January when the crisis emerged. Reflecting on their experience thus far, they shared several meaningful insights on aspects of good leadership and management that were helping them navigate the crisis. Here are a few.

Good leadership in a crisis actually begins before the crisis itself. A management team that has already developed high degree of mutual trust before going into the crisis can respond more efficiently, moving past politeness and siloed self-interest to a frank sharing of their immediate needs, held within a mature understanding of the concerns and needs of other parts of the business.

All participants noted that a crisis requires new ways of managing people. Good managers will provide flexibility for staff to do what they need to do and will stay in touch with their people. Recognising that times like this sort the good managers from the bad, leaders can challenge their managers while providing them support e.g. providing different ways of reducing staff costs without resorting to redundancies. Paradoxically, many people respond best if they are given hard problems to solve during a crisis, as it can channel adrenalin, provide a sense of clear purpose and reduce anxiety.

One of the highest tasks of leadership, we heard, may be to provide one’s people with a narrative that describes simply where we are on this uncertain journey and where we must focus our attention in this particular phase. Now, for instance, may be a time for focusing on digging in, establishing new routines, putting one step in front of the other and supporting team mates to do the same.

Finally, several reflections from participants improved on the adage ‘crisis is opportunity’ with the caveat that crises can only help achieve long-term goals for the organisation if a sufficient vision for the organisation is already in place. There is clearly an art to holding strongly in mind the organisation’s values and long-term strategic vision at the same time as responding in the moment to every new development in the crisis. Both must be in play if the big opportunities to leap forward are to be spotted and seized.

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