In futures studies, COVID-19 represents what is called a wildcard event. It was unanticipated and not associated with a trend yet has a powerful impact on the present and future. COVID-19 has triggered unprecedented impacts similar yet different from the Great Recession. When events like this occur, there are significant leadership needs and opportunities.
This newsletter will focus on seven factors for leading in times of crisis.
First, leaders set the tone by being active, visible, and courageous. When the crisis hits all eyes turn to leaders. What will you do? How will you help? Followers want to know that their leaders are actively taking steps to respond to the crisis. Followers take comfort when they feel like their leaders are “with them.” Part of being with them is being visible on the front lines. For many leaders this is not a comfortable position—it takes courage to get out of your comfort zone and address the crisis, especially when there is a lot that is unknown.
Second, respond vs react. Responding with emotional intelligence is important. There are four domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, and relationship management. In times of crisis, leaders may react rather than respond without being aware of how they are coming across. On the other hand, leaders may be self-aware, but not able to manage their behavior in ways that help the situation. It is also important to pay attention to how the crisis is impacting your staff. This is social awareness. During the crisis, staff may get caught up in conflict, fear, or other emotions. Emotionally intelligent leaders help staff focus on a common vision of how to respond to the crisis in tangible ways, rather than fighting among themselves.
Third, communication is the lifeblood of an organization and is powerfully needed during times of crisis. In fact, leaders almost can’t over communicate. When the crisis occurs, it creates angst and “blank space.” If leaders don’t communicate, the staff will fill the information void with other information, often gossip or less informed sources. Give your staff timely and frequent updates.
When you do communicate, there are several important considerations. Use structured messaging, which entails identifying the 2-4 most important points a group of people needs to know, the rationale behind the message, and reiterating those points consistently. Keep in mind that staff may process new information differently, such as verbal vs. written (visually), so make the information available in different formats. So many leaders rely on impromptu messaging and leave out the rationale. This latter approach contributes to confusion, rather than clarity.
Depending on the urgency of the message consider which form of communication is most appropriate: face-to-face, conference call, or memo. Keep in mind that according to one study, words, voice inflection, and body language are represented by the following percentages 7%, 38%, and 55% respectively. For example, a very important communication should ideally be communicated face-to-face, since this includes words, voice inflection, and body language. Often, the message will need to be repeated more than one time. Lastly, be straight and honest in your communication. If there are aspects you cannot share, then let them know that you will share what you can and provide more details when you can do so.
Fourth, combat fear and the unknown by instilling hope and encouragement by being inspiring and positive in speech and attitude. When the crisis happens, staff can find themselves reeling from the impact. Fear sets in—will I be able to pay the rent or mortgage, what if I get the virus, or how long will this go on? The unknown makes us uncomfortable. We want answers, but there aren’t any. Leaders need to instill hope—we will get through this, we are in this together, and we have much to be thankful for. Encouragement is “the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope…persuasion to do or to continue something.” According to the Work of Leaders, best practices in creating inspiration involves being expressive and encouraging. Expressive is being demonstrative and convincing in your speech. Encouraging in this context is proactive—we can get through this or we will find a way to adapt the business.
Fifth, demonstrate empathy for the impact on staff and their families. Crisis impacts people. Consider the impact of the current COVID-19. Many people have been laid off, had their hours reduced, suffered a decline in business, lost their child care services, saw their investments rapidly decline, live in fear of getting COVID-19, struggled with family members who may be sick or dying, shelter-in-place for weeks, and the list goes on. Staff wants to know you care about them and are empathetic to the impact on them. Can you take the time to listen? Can you help them in some small way? Can you express your concern for their wellbeing? Can you let them know that you are truly sorry for the impact that COVID-19 is having on them?
Sixth, give staff a voice and a place to go to get up-to-date information, or share ideas. Staff have thoughts about the crisis and want to express them. They have fears and concerns, so give them the best information you have and/or point them to resources that do have up-to-date information. Staff may also have ideas about how to cut costs, add value to customers, and/or creatively provide products or services or market them to increase sales.
Seventh, engage your respective leadership teams in sharing the responsibility. As a business owner or senior leader, you may feel like everything rests on your shoulders. Rather than carry all the load, engage members of the leadership team in sharing the responsibility. Delegate aspects of the business to others. When you engage in brainstorming, break tasks down into smaller parts and give these smaller pieces to different people, even those outside of the leadership team. Leverage the brainpower, creativity, strength, and relationships of your leadership team—and others—to address the challenges that come with the crisis.
This call to action starts at the top but must cascade down through the leadership ranks. All seven points can—and should—be practiced at each level of the leadership team from top to bottom. Don’t forget to include lead workers. This is especially true in small businesses where there isn’t much of a leadership team.
The crisis is an opportunity for leaders to shine. It is a test of true leadership. These are steps that all leaders can take. Don’t wait for someone else, start leading in crisis today—your staff is watching your lead!
For the Faith-Based
The Bible has much to say about leading in the crisis. Let’s look at the advice to Joshua who was about to lead the Israelites in the Promised Land. Recall that 40 years earlier, their fathers had stood at the edge of the Promised Land and let fear detour them from entering. They were unwilling to trust God to guide them.
As they were about to enter the Promised Land, they knew they were facing many enemies who were big, strong and lived in fortified cities. Could they prevail and, if so, at what cost? Would God see them through? Moreover, there was a change in leadership. Joshua would be leading them forward.
Joshua is given some advice as a leader that speaks to us today as we face this pandemic that seems overwhelming with an unprecedented impact on us. First, Moses says to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). Second, God speaks to Joshua and tells him, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” (Joshua 1:6, ESV) Finally, the Israelite people say to Joshua, “Only be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1:18, ESV)
In these three passages, we see Joshua being encouraged to be strong and courageous from Moses as the voice of a senior, experienced leader; God as the voice from on high, and lastly from those he would be leading—the voice of followership. This still speaks to us today. As we face this pandemic, we need to lead with courage and the strength that comes from putting our faith in a living God “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV) This power, love, and self-control compel us to take the seven steps above to lead more effectively in this crisis.
“Encouragement: Definition of Encouragement by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, www.lexico.com/en/definition/encouragement.