Our generation has never really been exposed to the stark realities we are now facing under a global pandemic. Most of us thought of it is a farfetched scenario that only plays out in the movies. Sure, some of us may have had the uneasy feeling while watching those movies that it could happen to us. Some can safely say that they have had discussions in their risk identification processes around a pandemic and how it would affect the organisation, but many have shoved the risk into the low likelihood corner and forgot about it. There are always more immediate pressings issues to deal with. With full schedules and too few hands on deck, it is always the important-urgent matters that get first attention. The rest have to wait their turn.
Until something like Covid-19 comes along and claims its place at the top of the important-urgent matters list, and makes everything else look like child’s play. Bigger organisations would in all likelihood have specialists in place who would see to it that the organisation is able to navigate its way through the crisis. For many others it is not that simple. There are no experts who deal with things like risks and take command of the organisation’s disaster management plan. Many in leadership positions are forced to think about things they have never really had to apply their minds to.
There is no telling where we will end up and what the world is going to look like post Covid-19. What is certain is that the world will not be a carbon copy of its old self. There are too many variables moving and many will not come through unscathed. These are the times when leadership becomes truly important. A crisis of this magnitude will test everyone who is in a leadership position and expose those who are not able to exercise good leadership.
Leading an organisation through a crisis requires a maturity where the individual in the leadership position is able to look beyond self and self-interest and display empathy while providing direction. I am very deliberately not saying ‘clear’ direction as it is very difficult to predict exactly where we will end. How do you lead people when you cannot give them clear direction? Firstly, I think that it is important that a leader is honest with themselves about where things are. There is no good in putting your head in the sand and downplaying the severity of the situation. Many are still in denial about how bad the situation may become for their organisations and their people. Others are of course already in a state of panic. It is also important to understand that a leader in panic mode is not much good to the organisation. What is required is a clear head, the ability to communicate clearly what the current state is, what it means for the organisation and being honest about the fact that there is a degree of fluidity needed in the organisation’s responses, due to the fact that it is being steered through a maze with moving walls. Giving people false hope or a false sense of security will not pay off in the long run as the leadership will lose credibility. Find the balance between dishing out the truth, with compassion and ensuring that there is regular communication from the organisation’s leadership to its people as well as other stakeholders. People need to see the leaders in the frontlines leading the organisation through the maze. Visible leadership is of utmost importance.
Showing a bit of vulnerability may sound counterintuitive, but while people want to see strong leaders, they also need to know that their leaders feel their pain. It is better to say “I am scared too, but together we will get through this. We have a strong team and our deep value system and culture will anchor us through the storm. I am here for you”, as opposed to giving the impression that you have everything under control, when you don’t. Trying to inspire people under false pretences will only backfire later.
Communicate truthfully. Don’t give people the impression that the organisation is doing well when it isn’t just because you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing. In an unprecedented crisis like the one we are facing now, very few people can claim that they know exactly what ought to be done. Rather allow your team to become part of finding solutions. People are often a lot more resourceful than what we expect and that resourcefulness tends to tick up when their lives are at stake. It is important to steer people to have a dual focus. The one is on how we get through the current crisis and the second on what we think the world may look like after this and how we will thrive in the new realities.
Part of being an authentic leader is your ability to look at the world through the different lenses of those you lead. Depending on the diversity of the people in the organisation, the leader may have to look through multiple lenses and steer through all of that complexity. For example, a leader who comes from a privileged background may need to put extra effort into understanding the lens through which workers, who literally live from hand to mouth and who live in impoverished areas, see the world and experience their reality. Plus making them feel that you understand their reality, empathise with them and that you are working in their interest too. Bringing multiple realities to the table requires a significant amount of empathy to ensure that nobody gets left behind. Leaders who lead with empathy are much more likely to gain trust and respect. One must of course understand that you will have to work through a wall of distrust first if you had not practiced empathy before. It does however give you the opportunity to make a U-turn and do better.
We are in a global crisis. Those in your sphere of influence need you to step up and lead.