What makes a good leader in a crisis?
On 11th March, Adam Silver – the NBA Commissioner – stunned the world when he announced that the league was going into lockdown. At the time, Silver explained that the COVID-19 pandemic was too uncertain, and it was time to put the health and safety of the players and everyone involved in the game first. Silver took action well before governments did and his decision started a chain reaction around the world that would change the face of sports for decades to come.
Two weeks later, on the other side of the world, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s premier announced that the country was going into Level 4 lockdown to eradicate the virus. At the time, New Zealand had only 52 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Ardern’s decision was criticised by some as too bold. Her model was based on the existing NZ Emergency Response Plan. Located on the southern tip of the Pacific Ocean, this tiny nation of 4.5 million people is susceptible to natural disasters like volcano eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. The country’s emergency response aim is simple: Minimise risks to protect New Zealanders, their properties and the community. Ardern’s plan also had a set of clear guidelines on how the New Zealand government would react to the health crisis and what citizens were expected to do.
In times of crisis, it takes a particular kind of leadership to help others rise above the situation. The coronavirus pandemic has forced a large proportion of Australia’s workforce to work remotely from home. Without the physical presence of their managers and leaders, it is easy for staff to lose motivation and focus.
Employee disengagement was an issue facing managers long before we were forced into lockdown. The 2017 State of the Workplace Gallup Poll showed that up to 71% of Australian workers are not engaged and as many as 15% have totally ‘checked out’ of their jobs. That was nearly three years ago – before COVID-19. The most common complaints from employees according to the survey, were a lack of support and mutual respect, and little opportunity for growth.
This lack of engagement in the workplace can impact the mental and physical wellbeing of our employees. Employees who are stressed and unhappy are more likely to get sick and less likely to recover from an injury. They are also less productive.
Good leaders dispel fear. They inspire confidence and trust. They have the ability to unite people to a common cause. Now more than ever, the world needs good leadership. As Ardern and Silver have demonstrated, good leadership in a crisis is not the same as leadership in a normal setting.
7 qualities of a good leader in a crisis
An effective leader in crisis is not just someone who can act tough. Or someone who can give great speeches. According to Professor Arjen Boin – professor of political science and co-author of ‘The Politics of Crisis Management’, how the leader responds to a crisis can either calm the situation or exacerbate the problem.
Here are 7 qualities of good leadership in a crisis.
1. Act decisively
As human beings, our default in a crisis is to adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude. While information and clarity are important, delaying action because you need more clarity can be detrimental to your business.
In a crisis, leaders need to know when to jump in and make decisions even if they do not have all the information at hand. They work with what information they have and apply all their experience and knowledge to act. Both Arden and Silver took decisive action when they realised, they were dealing with a pandemic. They did not try to sugar-coat the situation nor pretend it was not there.
To manage staff working remotely, a manager must know how to make decisions that impact his/her staff. If you keep delaying a decision because you feel you need more information, you will lose your staff’s support eventually. A staff that does not support his/her manager will not be very interested in their job.
2. Communicate clearly
One of the most common mistakes made by managers when handling a crisis is the lack of consistent and clear messages. The UK government’s mixed messages at the start of the pandemic did little to calm the British people. Instead, it created confusion and distrust about the government’s ability to manage the crisis.
In Ardern’s first address to her country about the government’s decision to lock down its citizens, she said:
‘I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together’.
It takes courage and wisdom to be transparent with your staff. Being transparent means being open and honest. It is about telling your staff what you know, what you anticipate will happen with your business and how it will impact them. It is a credible account of the situation. It instils hope, shows empathy and offers guidance to staff. It is about showing them that the leaders are in control of the situation.
3. Accept and learn from mistakes
COVID-19 working from home challenges are unusual. Many of us have no prior experience in handling this new reality. It is acceptable to make mistakes so long as we can learn from them.
Managers supervising remote staff will inspire more confidence in their teams if they can accept that missteps are bound to happen. What you must not do is to revert to defensiveness or blame. Instead, stay focussed on the goals and find ways to work with your team to resolve the problem.
4. Instil a sense of purpose
A good leader will help their staff make sense of what’s going on. The pandemic is disruptive. It is natural for staff to worry about their jobs, mortgages, children and loved ones. South Korea’s rapid response to the pandemic threat is a good example of how a nation was able to establish an infrastructure of ‘sensemaking’ for its people. President Moon Jae-in’s messaging at the time was clear and consistent. Because the country was prepared with a stockpile of testing kits, it was able to test 10,000 people a day when the infection rate climbed. This built a high-level of trust in the people and created a ‘wartime sense of purpose’.
A crisis is an opportunity for you to build a common sense of purpose for your employees. Employees are looking for leadership. Purposeful leaders can use this time to inspire unity by sharing execution plans with staff, soliciting input and engaging staff on the challenges the organisation is facing – including sensitive trade-offs.
5. Adapt to change
The situation today is constantly changing. No one knows for certain what is going to happen next. Victoria’s economy may have reopened but the Andrews government has demonstrated that they will not hesitate to shut it down again if an outbreak goes out of control.
Traditionally, people look upon their leaders as their bedrock. We expect them to be steadfast and unwavering. A good leader in a crisis, however, is adaptable to change. They update their understanding of a situation as events unfold. They make decisions and adjust actions to suit these situations. If your staff know they can rely on you to take charge, they feel more secure in their positions. Feeling secure about their future goes a long way in keeping them engaged and productive in the workplace.
6. Stay anchored
Staff who are working from home are physically removed from the influence of their workplace. Without this physical connection, it is easy for them to lose focus. If left unchecked, they can become disengaged and unproductive.
A good leader knows how to keep staff focused on the ‘big picture’. In times of crises, the big picture is an anchor of reasoning for staff. It keeps them focused on the goals rather than the disruptions surrounding them.
7. Lead with empathy
People want their leaders to lead with compassion and understanding. You can be tough and kind at the same time. With a good leader, kindness is strength and compassion, action. During the Christchurch shooting, Jacinda Ardern showed the world that being tough does not mean you have to be unkind. She grieved with the nation over the loss of lives but within days of that grieving, she had successfully elicited a bill that would see guns banned in New Zealand.
Good leadership in uncertain times means making oneself available to be in the other person’s shoes – to feel what your staff must be feeling. To lead with empathy and to think with intelligence. Good leaders in crisis use their position of authority to forge a path forward for their employees.
In a time of crisis, managers can choose to stay on the sidelines and do nothing or to engage with their teams and by engaging, demonstrate true leadership.