Project

Resilient Leadership

Learning from Crisis

As part of our work to make resilience tangible and relevant, every week for four months through the Covid-19 pandemic we are interviewing the same twelve senior decision-makers and professionals for their evolving reflections on what they are encountering. We then distil some of their insights for sharing with the wider public. Six of the participants are senior executives in significant corporations like Arup, the Lloyd’s Register Group, WSP, SAP and Siemens, one is with a global development finance organisation and five are the Chief Resilience Officers of a major city in Europe, Africa, India, Brazil and the US, members of the Global Resilient Cities Network.
In collaboration with

Podcasts

Every week, Peter Willis and Seth Schultz, the Global Executive Director of the Resilience Shift reflect on the insights distilled from conversations with our participants, with occasional perspectives from special guests. Click on the tabs below to listen in on their discussion.

Listen or subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher

Episode 5

#5 - Insights from Round 5

Seth and Peter reflect on ‘pre-existing conditions’ and their role in shaping crisis response in cities and organisations. Other topics include how crisis response is shaped – positively and negatively – by the experience during past crises, and bracing for the storm(s).

Podcast editing by Roman Svidran. Music by Robin Fuzile and Jesse Reiner from the album ‘Unyuko’ (2019)

Episode 4

#4 - Insights from Round 4

This week, Seth and Peter discuss how our participants are managing some of the harsh realities associated with this crisis, both personally and professionally. Other topics include approaches for communication, emerging challenges around re-opening, dilemmas around grasping the opportunity for re-invention, and Peter’s ‘yoga mat’.

Podcast editing by Roman Svidran. Music by Robin Fuzile and Jesse Reiner from the album ‘Unyuko’ (2019)

Episode 3

#3 - Insights from Round 3

Seth and Peter discuss how city governments and corporations are adapting to uncertainty and the speed of change during this crisis, the difficulties involved in making ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ work, and some emerging lessons for future preparedness.

Podcast editing by Roman Svidran. Music by Robin Fuzile and Jesse Reiner from the album ‘Unyuko’ (2019)

Episode 2

#2 - Insights from Rounds 1 and 2

Seth and Peter reflect on insights from the first two rounds of interviews, including how trust influences decision-making in city government and corporations, and how the crisis reveals different facets of leadership during emergencies.

Podcast editing by Roman Svidran. Music by Robin Fuzile and Jesse Reiner from the album ‘Unyuko’ (2019)

Episode 1

#1 - What is 'Resilient Leadership' about?

Peter and Seth discuss what inspired the 'Resilient Leadership: Learning from Crisis' project, their reflections on what to expect over the next few weeks, and how this project could add value to our understanding of resilience - both during the Covid-19 crisis as well as long-term.

Learn more about the Learning from Day Zero project referenced in this episode.

Podcast editing by Roman Svidran. Music by Robin Fuzile and Jesse Reiner from the album ‘Unyuko’ (2019)

Weekly Insights

The participating decision-makers receive a more detailed summary of the week’s insights and learnings. The ones shared here have been anonymized for public consumption, to allow them to speak freely in their weekly interviews. Click on the links on the left to access insights distilled from each week’s interviews

Resilient Leadership – Round 6: 18 – 22 May 2020

“When you’re immersed in lockdown, everywhere you look, the world is experiencing the same thing. There is a sense of solidarity. But then a portion of the world moves on from that to a different version and its stories are different. Do you still have this feeling of global solidarity and connection?”

In our sixth round of conversations some of our participants pondered the value of making room for others to lead. We are in a long crisis. Leaders’ ability to respond decisively and swiftly in the early phases has been shown everywhere to be critical to establishing public and stakeholder trust. Now, as we settle in to a more complex, multi- ...

“When you’re immersed in lockdown, everywhere you look, the world is experiencing the same thing. There is a sense of solidarity. But then a portion of the world moves on from that to a different version and its stories are different. Do you still have this feeling of global solidarity and connection?”

In our sixth round of conversations some of our participants pondered the value of making room for others to lead. We are in a long crisis. Leaders’ ability to respond decisively and swiftly in the early phases has been shown everywhere to be critical to establishing public and stakeholder trust. Now, as we settle in to a more complex, multi-faceted phase, it can be helpful for all concerned if a wider spectrum of team members steps up to help hold the reins. Having experienced that strong urge to lean forward and lead from the front, this week our participants talked of the importance of taking a step back.

Examples came from both corporations and cities. One corporate leader shared how recognising when to let others lead and ensuring they felt empowered to do so has been an important part of their mission over the past months. And with letting others lead comes letting go. A Chief Resilience Officer, referring to transferring responsibility for a critical testing programme they’d set up from scratch to a higher tier of government to manage, added: “My strong temptation is to devote some energy to helping them make a success of it. But there is other work I need to focus on. It is important for me to trust and let go.” Followed by: “If you are really about getting the work done, you don’t have to get the praise.”

When investing in letting go and sharing responsibilities, it is rewarding to see others stepping up to the challenge. One Chief Resilience Officer praised the work done by local NGOs who have deep relationships with communities on the ground. The partnership arrangements formed between government and NGOs prior to the pandemic are proving instrumental during the crisis, as well-founded NGOs are usually more agile and responsive on the ground than government is able to be.

Some hard dilemmas surfaced around the mounting fiscal challenges many nations and cities are facing. Whereas some development banks have shown willingness to delay interest rate payments for the next months, they realise that if they do this their bond rating will probably be downgraded regardless, making it more expensive to borrow from them in the future.

Moreover, is funding support based on debt an adequate way to fight the fiscal battle? Take Small Island Developing States, for example. They’ve been painfully aware for many years of the costs they face in adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, so are already nervous of taking on any more debt. “Now layer a health crisis on top of that,” observed one of our participants, “and an economic collapse from the loss of tourism – what does that mean for recovery?” In our big cities the picture is not much different. As one of our Chief Resilience Officers put it, “We have lost a lot of revenue already over the hard lockdown period, yet we have big expenditures that we’re expected to lay out. This is focusing our minds on how sustainable that is. Those are the very hard realities of management.”

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Resilient Leadership – Round 5: 11 – 15 May 2020

“It made me think, are we actually learning? I’m not sure whether people are actually taking the time to rethink and let go of what they have believed for 40-50 years, and create space for new thinking”

In Round 5 our conversations with participants turned to how the pandemic, like any crisis, shines a spotlight on the pre-existing condition of our critical systems (teams, organizations, cities or society at large). The light in Covid-19’s case is particularly strong, but its light shines neutrally. What it reveals, however, can be suprising ...

“It made me think, are we actually learning? I’m not sure whether people are actually taking the time to rethink and let go of what they have believed for 40-50 years, and create space for new thinking”

In Round 5 our conversations with participants turned to how the pandemic, like any crisis, shines a spotlight on the pre-existing condition of our critical systems (teams, organizations, cities or society at large). The light in Covid-19’s case is particularly strong, but its light shines neutrally. What it reveals, however, can be suprising strength or troubling weakness.

To start with the weakness, a few examples. One city Chief Resilience Officer explained, perhaps unsurprisingly, how deprivation or wealth inequality in cities is certainly not a new or unique issue. It has always been there but the crisis makes it so much more obvious, and: “If you don’t deal with the realities of those distributions of social and economic problems, it becomes a vulnerability for your city’s overall resilience.”

Another CRO expressed shock at how historic bureaucratic hostilities between different tiers of government are severely impeding their city’s ability to provide and fund much needed testing facilities. “It’s not a personal thing. It’s well-meaning people in a fractured system.” Such institutional reluctance to collaborate may be a source of irritation in normal times and seem not worth the trouble of repairing, but in a pandemic it can have truly dire consequences.

Another of the CROs shared how institutionalised norms regarding marriage and what constitutes a family, founded in the nation’s dominant religious culture, effectively marginalises whole sections of the population during lockdown, as their choice as to whom they may lock down with is curtailed by regulation. Will such biases be allowed to remain undisturbed as we come out of this?

By contrast, the Covid spotlight is illuminating some striking pre-existing strengths. One participant, a native of Denmark but working in the US, shared how the Danish government had, from the outset, urged all Danes to return home and be taken care of there. “That was an eye-opener: ‘This country takes care of its citizens!’ And our universal healthcare system makes you feel safe. I can see the huge difference. I feel safe here, I am not hurrying back to the US.”

At risk of stating the obvious, our conversations this week reminded us in a tangible way that an external threat like a virus or natural disaster never arrives to find a clean slate. The health and resilience of the human and human-made systems it meets will determine its destructive power. This sharp lesson seems so clear in the heat of the working-out of a crisis. The maturity of our leadership may be what decides whether we remember it and build back stronger in the aftermath.

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Resilient Leadership – Round 4: 4 – 8 May 2020

“I don’t think anybody’s got a crystal ball on the shape of the recovery.”

In Round 4 of weekly conversations with our participants, many spoke about the challenge of using a crisis as a moment for re-invention. There is no shortage of a sense of urgency from our city and corporate leaders to start shaping the future now, using this unique period in time as a critical window of opportunity for transformation. The transfor ...

“I don’t think anybody’s got a crystal ball on the shape of the recovery.”

In Round 4 of weekly conversations with our participants, many spoke about the challenge of using a crisis as a moment for re-invention. There is no shortage of a sense of urgency from our city and corporate leaders to start shaping the future now, using this unique period in time as a critical window of opportunity for transformation.

The transformation can take different guises, as there is no certainty on what the length and nature of recovery from this crisis looks like. Participants shared both tactical actions, such as ensuring new public infrastructure has a dual use, or decentralizing services to respond with more flexibility in a crisis, as well as long-term strategies to take account of the changed nature of global supply chains.

As far as stimulus and cash injections go, it hasn’t gone unnoticed in our conversations that there are parallels to be drawn with the financial crisis of 2008-9 – and hard lessons to be learned. Back then bail-out and stimulus packages came with few strings attached to bring economies rapidly back to their previous state, so the opportunity to push for a greener, more sustainable economy slipped away. Will it be different this time?

“The real risk is, 10 years from now – or even two years from now – they’re going to be writing the same obituary of the billions of dollars that went out the door. We could have, should have, etc. Just like 2008 and 2009. Well, we didn’t get it done, and therefore we lost the decade. And given that this is the final decade in which we can do things in a more cost effective manner to address climate, it comes back to, can’t we get out of our box and just really push very hard or think a bit more creatively?” And, that leaders should not wait any longer: “It’s a bit of a time crunch that we’re facing. I think it’s weeks that we have.”

If this crisis forces a moment for reinvention, are those currently not in crisis-mode (or to a lesser extent) missing out on this opportunity? As one city Chief Resilience Officer mused: “You might think Sweden were lucky because they didn’t lock down. But on the other hand, they also maybe lost the opportunity to rethink themselves in general, like we now have to do.”

Finally, despite looking to the future, several participants were also facing some very real, immediate consequences of the pandemic. Corporate leaders shared their concerns about having to lay off staff amid the possibility of having lost whole areas of business into the future where sectors like aviation and hospitality had collapsed. At the same time they were finding planning beyond the next few weeks extremely difficult as uncertainties proliferated. Meanwhile some cities in the global South, learning from those ahead of them, are planning for significant ‘excess deaths’. Those engaged in such ‘fatalities management’ well ahead of time are realizing there is inevitably a big difference between planning for dark possibilities and having them arrive at one’s doorstep: “It’s very difficult to get everyone focused on the crisis when you are discussing theoretically what is going to happen in the future…until that day arrives, and you realize, heck, it’s here!”

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Resilient Leadership – Round 3: 27 April – 1 May 2020

“While it has been incredibly taxing on me personally, physically, it has been the most fulfilling eight weeks of my life. It is a crazy time, but I feel particularly prepared and honoured to have a direct impact.”

This week our cohort was joined by a further two business leaders and three Chief Resilience Officers, strategic thinkers who are involved in the direct pandemic response or longer-term recovery in their respective cities. Witnessing the impacts of the pandemic on the ground takes its toll, but, as one of our participants reflected: “I get ex ...

“While it has been incredibly taxing on me personally, physically, it has been the most fulfilling eight weeks of my life. It is a crazy time, but I feel particularly prepared and honoured to have a direct impact.”

This week our cohort was joined by a further two business leaders and three Chief Resilience Officers, strategic thinkers who are involved in the direct pandemic response or longer-term recovery in their respective cities. Witnessing the impacts of the pandemic on the ground takes its toll, but, as one of our participants reflected: “I get excited with the ability to figure something out, to the point where I am really targeted to make this work.”

Nearly two months into the pandemic that is occupying leaders globally, it is perhaps no surprise that this week some participants shared reflections on how their personal and psychological resilience is both a source of strength and is being put to the test.

For example, three of the participants have in the past few weeks been required to set up, from scratch: a dynamic organisational structure that’s flexible enough to meet the crisis; an public thought leadership platform and a set of socially-inclusive testing sites, all under tremendous time pressure and with a chronic shortage of solid certainties. In each case they reported a sense of amazement at how much they and their teams had been able to create in an absurdly short period. Some likened it to being in a start-up, where the need is clear, a motivating goal is set and then one’s days are filled with overcoming obstacles and changing assumptions as new information floods in. You act, you learn, you adapt, and you act again. Velocity is all.

Support for this highly entrepreneurial approach in a pandemic comes in a short YouTube clip from 16 March of Dr Michael Ryan (Executive Director at WHO Health Emergencies Programme) when he offered the following insights based on his experience of multiple Ebola outbreaks: “Be fast, have no regrets. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Speed trumps perfection. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

Much of the discussion this week turned around the challenge of re-opening one’s business or city after a lengthy lockdown. What emerged was a sense that, whereas persuading everyone to lock down and self-isolate involved a simple instruction and could be achieved relatively easily, asking people to come out of their safe homes and re-enter their workplaces was meeting a much more varied response. Our leaders have uniformly opted to consult with staff and communities, but the challenge of accommodating the variety of their concerns and preferences into a practical plan for re-opening is enormous, and may well test the early sense that ‘we’re all in this together’.

Legal aspects of re-opening are also coming to the fore. Cities take their lead – and a stream of new regulations – from national government. Yet the unintended consequences of these are felt, and have to be dealt with, at local level, often without adequate prior discussion with national government, or indeed resources. On the private sector side, what is the company’s legal liability if it re-opens a site and, despite best efforts, an employee contracts Covi-19? One thing is becoming clear: the brands and reputations of cities as well as companies are being revealed and tested against the toughest standard – that of their stakeholders’ need for care and protection.

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Resilient Leadership – Round 2: 20-24 April 2020

“We can’t know every single piece of the puzzle, but at least we have to have a very good sense of what those pieces look like, how we will make them fit together as much as possible, before committing ourselves to any level of public communication.”

This was a hard-won lesson, shared by one of our participants. It addresses the impossibility of creating and sticking to a comprehensive plan in such fast-unfolding times, while recognizing that one’s public (staff or citizens) will be yearning for at least some certainty. So don’t make promises if you aren’t pretty sure you can ...

“We can’t know every single piece of the puzzle, but at least we have to have a very good sense of what those pieces look like, how we will make them fit together as much as possible, before committing ourselves to any level of public communication.”

This was a hard-won lesson, shared by one of our participants. It addresses the impossibility of creating and sticking to a comprehensive plan in such fast-unfolding times, while recognizing that one’s public (staff or citizens) will be yearning for at least some certainty. So don’t make promises if you aren’t pretty sure you can back them up.

In this round, we welcomed three Chief Resilience Officers to our virtual panel of participants. Perhaps not surprisingly, in Round 2 our conversations often turned to the matter of trust. It appeared in two different guises. First, in relation to the taxing question ‘When and how do we re-open our organisation / offices?’ This is now on every leader’s mind and there is no template to follow. In most countries where a re-opening of the economy is being actively discussed, there remains a high level of risk and uncertainty, not only about the possibility of a second wave of infection, but also about the degree to which people will trust that it is safe to venture onto public transport, into public spaces and back into their places of work. While our participants are working out the best way to do this, their employees are at least appreciating being asked for their opinions on what would work for them.

The other dimension of trust is broader and more obvious – trust in one’s leadership. There can be no better test of leadership than a pandemic. We can see how national political leaders around the world are revealing their true values; the same is true in the city administrations and companies represented in our project. Uncertainty is endemic, and uncertainty breeds fear. So how to reduce fear in one’s staff and organisation, so as to remain highly functional?

It helps if one has been through crisis before and can recall the roller-coaster of emotions that can be set in motion when leading in a crisis. As one participant, reluctant veteran of a major crisis not long ago said,

“it has helped to know that, when there’s cause for great apprehension or trepidation, these are not unusual feelings to experience. I have a wellspring of experiences to draw from, not just mentally and managerially, but also emotionally, of what it’s like to be in charge in a crisis.”

Can one learn this without having to go through the fire? Perhaps not. And yet there are well understood lessons in crisis management, most of which seem to have been thinly distributed in normal management training.

Finally, we discussed the enormous stimulus packages being put together by governments around the world. They represent a rare, high-impact moment which could determine which way an economy/society will function going forward. What assumptions about the economy and about priorities will inform the way the money is distributed?

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Resilient Leadership – Round 1: 13-17 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 ...

“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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Participants

The insights you are reading and listening to on this page have been 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 do this in their own capacity, not as a spokesperson on behalf of their organisation.


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Covid-19

We have curated a selection of our existing resources that should be of use in responding to the current crisis. These can be viewed here.

Click here to read the Resilience Shift’s statement in response to the Covid-19 crisis, and how we hope to work together with our partners and grantees thoughout this challenging period.

Project Team

Peter Willis

Peter Willis
Project Lead

Originally from the UK, Peter has spent 25 years in Cape Town teaching, facilitating and advising at executive and board level on strategic issues of sustainability. Previously Africa Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, he facilitates strategic conversation through Conversations that Count and the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative, among others.

siddharth nadkarny

Siddharth Nadkarny
Senior Consultant, Resilience Shift

Siddharth is a strategic urban planner with a focus on building capacity within local government institutions to improve the wellbeing and resilience of urban populations. Siddharth brings insights from over 10 years’ experience working with city governments and non-governmental organisations across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. 

Femke Gubbels
Urban Resilience Consultant, Global Resilient Cities Network

Femke’s work focuses on urban resilience, delivering multi-sectoral urban programmes and integrated city strategies across Europe and the Middle East. Her academic research concentrates on urban climate adaptation and environmental inequalities in Tanzania, the Philippines, and Canada. She holds a distinction level MSc in Urbanisation and Development from the London School of Economics.