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How the Corona (Covid-19) outbreak becomes a powerful catalyst for transformative leadership

Why leaders need to forget most they knew about leadership

A month ago, when Covid-19 (Corona) was still affecting countries in the Far East, life and business here in Europe continued as usual. For a while, it looked as if it were contained locally.

Deeply concerned about the spread and following our colleagues in the field we pushed the emergency button. As an organisation, we realised that we had little time to get ready for a potential upcoming outbreak in Europe. And then suddenly the Tsunami hit. One wave was quickly followed by many.

Having worked for a decade in conflicts around the world, I knew that any crisis requires decisive actions and clarity. Leading in extraordinary times requires dealing with a high level of uncertainty. Covid-19 is an ‘enemy’ that is invisible and knows no borders. Even the most naïve leaders had to realise that any day missed in responding and preparing was a day where lives were put at risk. Pointing fingers at scapegoats do not help in such situations.

For once, my home country Switzerland is being hit heavily. As a country, we are well prepared but have not experienced a national crisis since WW2. According to the WHO, Switzerland is one of the worst affected countries in Europe. Although the situation is challenging, I am also grateful for having the ‘luxury’ of being able to access one of the best health systems in the world. Others are not so lucky. Think about the refugees cramped in camps or the countless others who would not even have access to any health facility. Can you imagine what an outbreak means for them?

And what does that mean for leaders around the world? What does it mean to lead in such challenging times? Where do I have to set the priorities and what should I stop doing?

Here are some takeaways:

Forget everything you knew about leadership

Leading in an unpredictable crisis is different. This is not a financial downturn, a shrinking economy but a global health crisis. Such a crisis requires leaders to lead entirely different than what they are used to. Suddenly, every decision may not only have implications on the business or the organisation but also on the health of the employees and the society at large. The stakes are higher and much more impactful. 

A 2016 study published in Group Organization Management examined the leadership in organizations that had survived a crisis.“Even when lives were at stake, the best leaders were able to help employees experience positive emotions, which was the key to keeping employees mentally strong. The more resilient the employees were, the more resilient the organization was as a whole.”

It means some decisions may have to be taken faster. Did you think for example that every time an employee has to move to and from work, she or he is exposed to potential danger and represents a potential threat to the team and / or other commuters?

Therefore, leading during a crisis is different. Be ready to learn with lightspeed and forget most of what you know about leadership.

Be a commander

Crisis management is not a democratic process but should be based on informed decisions. There has to be one leader. But that doesn’t mean the leader has to take decisions alone. The key is to work with a team of advisors made up of experts, senior management and employees from different sections of the organisation. That allows a broad representation. This helps the leadership team to understand the concerns of the employees. Winston Churchill was a master at summing up challenges but offering a response at the same time. As he famously said when taking office in 1940, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Therefore, be ready to take decisions and stand behind them. Never fail to course-correct fast and surround yourself with pragmatic and helpful expert voices.

Leaders eat last

Simon Simek famously set the terms with his book ‘Leaders eat Last’. This crisis shows so clearly that leadership must be underlined by clarity, purpose and with the best interest of the team, the organisation and society at large. The leader should stay on deck during the stormy times, reassuring teams and customers alike. That is not always easy particularly during unpredictable times such as this one.

This is what humble servant leadership is all about. Leaders care, listen and act in the best interest of others. Even if the ship is sinking, the leader only leaves the ship when the last person has been evacuated.

Therefore, think of the team and the organisation and its purpose before thinking of yourself.

Thank

Most of the time teams who respond to the crisis have to work beyond their capacities. We have experienced this in the recent weeks. That means for the leader to be there, to listen and most of all to express gratitude. There is nothing more demotivating for employees than to feel that they are just robots and not humans. Something wonderful happened in Madrid (Spain) on 14 March 2020: at 10 pm, people all over the city stood on their balconies and applauded the health workers dealing with the Corona crisis. A beautiful manifestation of gratitude.

Therefore, thank generously, thank often, thank everyone.

Communicate

Understandably, most employees are deeply frightened by what is happening. Their dependency on the leadership makes them vulnerable and that is why clarity and transparency are key in such times. It does not mean leaders are not afraid. Maybe they are mortified but their role is to communicate positivity and confidence. Information is the anchor people hold on to. But it must be short, pragmatic, clear and understandable.

Therefore, inform regularly and keep everyone fully updated.

Predict and Plan

It is key that the leader and its team are always a step ahead of the situation. For example, with Covid-19 the measures imposed by the various authorities mean that decisions may have to be altered in an instant. Preparation for different scenarios is therefore key. For example, will the movement be restricted tomorrow? Will the whole team submerge into quarantine due to the fact that one team member fell ill to Covid-19? During a crisis, we might have to live with the fact that everything we learned yesterday might be obsolete tomorrow. Agility is the one key skill needed in these situations.

Therefore, create and prepare different scenarios and have a plan ready for each of them. For example, we prepared 4 scenarios from light to extreme.  

Fear is a bad advisor

Leave no space for fear or panic. Fear is never a good advisor. It inhibits us from thinking clearly and acting pragmatically. “From an evolutionary perspective, the emotion of fear protected humans from predators and other threats to the survival of the species. So it is no wonder that certain dangers evoke that emotion since fear helps protect you and is therefore adaptive, functional, and necessary.”[1] Fear made us switch to the hit and run scenario. This might have been helpful surviving in the wild but may lead to poor and hasty decisions in a crisis like this. Fear can easily act like a virus and infect an entire team. In a study of risk-taking, participants who were fearful consistently made judgments and choices that were relatively pessimistic and amplified their perception of risk in a given situation, in contrast to happy or angry participants who were more likely to disregard risk by making relatively optimistic judgments and choices (Lerner and Keltner, 2001).

Therefore, the leader should use a calming, clear and positive approach. In case of doubt delegate a decision or create checks and balances that help to mitigate the risk of hasty decisions made in situations driven by fear.

Disrupt and learn fast

When we triggered the emergency preparation some weeks ago, we realized how many challenges we had to overcome in order to be ready in time. Not only did we have to change the technical setup of how we work (IT systems, workflows, processes, etc.) but more than anything we had to change the mindset of people, impacting the culture of the organization. Although the shift is still ongoing, we managed to sort out the technical side. In addition, we helped the team with guidelines, links and training to understand the use of new collaborative tools. We had to disrupt rapidly and learned to eliminate a lot of inefficiencies during the process. Changing the way we work helped the team to look differently at almost every process.

Therefore, do not be afraid to disrupt and to see this challenge as a chance for renewal.

You are not alone but connected

In a world that gives so much weight to the individual and our personal lives, we are suddenly confronted with a situation we have not seen since WWII. Our grandparents grew up in a world where everyone had to help each other to overcome the challenges of the war and beyond. In a world driven by GDP and individual economical empowerment, we have lost a good part of that communal sense. But here comes a crisis that affects every person and requires a common response. The virus does not know borders, race or financial status. It only looks for hosts, no matter where they are from and how much they own. That is why, despite the need for social distancing, leaders and their teams need to work together. Collaboration and care are the new norms. That also begins in exchanging best practice, supporting each other and respecting the rules. For example, we realized that social distancing does not mean we are all working in siloes or are confined to our homes. Thanks to the many tools that exist today, we can cooperate remotely without avoiding complete isolation.

Imagine, how 9/11 or the 2004 Tsunami brought people from around the world together and sparked global solidarity. I dearly hope this is another chance to be leaders for the greater good. It’s a new age for empathy, action and vision. 

@World Vision we are currently responding to the Corona Crisis in 17 of the most vulnerable countries. Thanks to the fact that we have teams in nearly 100 countries we are able to act fast and accurate. Learn more: https://www.wvi.org/emergencies/coronavirus-health-crisis

Everyone is a leader

Regardless of where we are located in the hierarchy of an organisation, leadership knows no titles. We are all leaders and leaders are not born, they emerge in situations where they need to be.

But it is on every one of us to take that chance and responsibility. Leading others means, first of all, leading oneself.

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