The Leadership Response To Coronavirus
As COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, disruption to our lives has unfolded at a pace and a breadth barely seen in peacetime circumstances. Despite governments around the world scrambling to enact financial measures to help employers and encourage them to retain staff, the shutdowns that are commonplace around the world have tested the leadership of many and have caused considerable harm to businesses.
Travel has been disrupted, tourism has shriveled, healthcare systems have come under intense strain, and factory output has withered. Many economists were predicting a global recession before the coronavirus crisis, but the prognosis now is even gloomier, with trillions being wiped from the value of stock markets around the world in a matter of weeks.
This concern is not limited to employers, however, as the salaried and self-employed alike have understandably worried about their livelihoods and ability to make ends meet just as much as they have the health and well-being of friends, family and themselves. At a time of such stress and precarity, it’s needed society to come together and look out for one another, with our leaders playing a crucial role in that process.
Sadly there have been all too many stories of companies that have responded poorly during this most challenging of times, disabusing the faith employees have in them. At a time when people are relying on their employers for reassurance and support, many have been cast into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
Even among those who still have a job, their work is likely to be done under considerable stress. Those able to work from home have to adapt to often very new ways of working. Those still working on-site are often arguably under even greater strain, whether those in our hospitals and health systems or those in our food and retail supply chains.
7 Leadership Response Steps
In their latest book, Humanocracy, London Business School’s Gary Hamel and his Management Lab colleague Michele Zanini outline seven steps leaders can take to better respond to crises such as this one.
1. Tackle the Climate of Fear
Fear and emotional safety are things that Harvard’s Amy Edmondson has spoken about repeatedly, and nowhere is this more important than in times of stress and discomfort, such as we’re experiencing at the moment. People need to feel safe in speaking up so they can contribute to the debate unfolding in your organization about how to tackle this crisis.
Sadly, there is as much misinformation as accurate and reliable information at the moment, so it’s vital that your leadership is underpinned by facts rather than fear.
2. Invest in Skills
It’s almost certain that the current situation will require employees to adapt their ways of working, so strive to provide support to the workforce so they feel confident to do that. If employees are unable to work for any period of time, try and use this downtime to invest in skills development. Factories regularly schedule downtime for retooling, so think of this as just such a time for your workforce.
3. Co-create Strategies
Hamel has advocated co-creation of strategy for many years, due in large part to the widening of the ideal pool you can turn to, and the greater likelihood of successful implementation if people have had an input into the ultimate strategy adopted. That makes complete sense in normal times, but in such extreme circumstances as we find ourselves in now, giving people a say in the decisions that matter to them, rather than imposing direction on them is undoubtedly the way to go.
4. Be as Social as Possible
Now, more than ever, it’s important that organizations appreciate their role in society. We’ve hopefully moved on considerably from the Friedmanite maxim that companies only need to return a profit for shareholders, and now accept that they should be respectable members of the communities in which they operate. Now is the time to truly live up to that ideal.
5. Link Ideas to Actions
Ordinarily, there is an expectation that leaders have to be always right, but in situations like this, speed and adaptability are more important. So make sure you link the ideas proposed by your stakeholders with clear and direct actions, and then continue listening to their input so you can adapt rapidly as the situation changes. You can’t plan for every eventuality, and it’s quite likely that your plans will be wrong anyway, so make decisions and adapt them rapidly. To iterate is to lead right now.
6. Include Outside Stakeholders
Harvard drew considerable criticism recently for sacking contracted catering staff while retaining salaried catering staff, and it underlines how complex the stakeholder networks are for many organizations today. The health and well-being of an organization affect large numbers, so make sure they’re included in any response you make.
7. Stop Looking to the CEO for Strategy
For decades, a sort of hero leadership ethos has prevailed, in which the leader must have all the answers to every problem. While there is undoubtedly a pressing need for leaders to be visible, even when most staff are working remotely, and to appear in control of the situation, there should not be a requirement for them to have all of the answers (and for those answers to always be right). Instead, a calm and reassuring presence is a more important quality than to be the sage for all circumstances.
“The thick, dark line between insiders and outsiders must fade away, and the belief that strategy starts at the top must be forever banished,” Hamel writes. “Only then will the organization have the chance to become as resilient as a great city or celebrated university.”