By Ipsita Kathuria and Shravani Prakash, first published in the Hindu BusinessLine
Why has our world reached this stage? How did Covid get the better of us? Well, WHO’s expert review by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, co-chaired by former New Zealand PM Helen Clark and former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has concluded that this crisis is the result of colossal leadership failure. Leadership failures have been more pronounced in countries that have been most affected by the pandemic. Inaction due to lack of appreciation of the issue, lack of respect for expert advice along with notable absence of transparency, self-interest and self-promotion, and above all a singular lack of compassion for human life are among some of the causes that led us to where we are.
Effective leadership to overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19 is, therefore, a dire necessity. But it is also an opportunity for everyone to reset, including leaders. According to analysis (by Gallup) of citizens’ worries, fears and confidence during past crises (Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, 2008 financial crash etc), people look towards their leadership for a crisis management plan and to provide trust, compassion, stability and hope. At the same time history tells us that greatness of several leaders has been forged in times of adversity and the diverse skills they summoned in order to prevail over those crises (Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times). Effective crisis management is what has defined great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and now Jacinda Ardern.
Therefore, it is important, now more than ever, that those occupying leadership roles must adopt multidimensional management skills and drastically alter the scope of their roles and priorities. What we need from those heading governments, corporations, healthcare systems and other frontline organisations is to display traits of leading with both Grit and Grace. Leaders need to use their Grit to take calculated bold decisions in this chaotic time and simultaneously display the Grace to listen, learn and to leverage available knowledge to tide us through the crisis. The following model can act as a guide for leaders to develop their crisis leadership skills.
Leaders must use Grit for getting things done
One of the biggest expectations from leaders today is for them to appreciate real issues at hand and be solutions focused, open to learning, and willing to take risks. They must be prepared to make bold and rapid decisions, because time is of the essence. Often, important decisions have to be based on limited, ambiguous and complex information. Therefore, agility is the need of the hour, for devising plans and implementing actions, making course corrections based on new information or to deal with unforeseen roadblocks.
Risk taking needs to be bolstered by a high level of “resilience” to quickly pick up and move on from failure, handle adversity with equanimity, maintain perspective and have a positive attitude. While chances of making judgement errors or wrong decisions are high during times of uncertainty, leaders must ensure that they don’t allow failure to define them. To bounce back, they must reflect, analyse, learn from mistakes and quickly restart.
To increase their chances of success, leaders must up their communication skills, especially since they are often required to make public comments and front the media. They must convey messages clearly, unambiguously and transparently. But most importantly, they must now shy away from communicating openly or “showing up” even if they are not succeeding. All of this helps build trust in people and inspirees them to take proactive actions. their support.
Leaders need to use Grace to become inspirational
Empathy is one of the most valued leadership traits, and leaders especially are expected to demonstrate a much-heightened level of empathy and compassion during this period of uncertainty, fear and grief. In extremely challenging times when people want to feel that they’re being heard, leaders must have their ears to the ground.
What is also important is for leaders to display their vulnerability and admit when they go wrong or need new inputs, insights or reference points. Being open to the idea of learning and showing the vulnerability that comes with not always knowing the answer is a key characteristic of a great leader. Since economic priorities, business models, team demographics and external influences are changing with extreme volatility, leaders need to unlearn and learn quickly to gather relevant information and leverage the support of available expertise. They need to consult with the experts and incorporate others’ views in decisions while also maintaining their own focus and vision.
Successful crisis management also depends upon the size of social capital that leaders have built by investing in meaningful relationships with key stakeholders and how well they can leverage their connections and collaborate for sustainable growth and wellbeing of those they lead. Leaders who empower their people by encouraging diversity of thought & innovation generally find committed teams and optimal solutions. Honest and clear communication in difficult times inspires confidence and trust.
Also vital for the success of leaders is establishing their credibility. The surest way to build credibility is to be consistent with professed values, deliver on promises made and acknowledge course correction needed. Past credentials and degrees don’t matter if leaders don’t deliver when needed. To invoke a cricket metaphor-you are only as good as your last innings! By being credible, vulnerable and demonstrating character and courage, leaders can actually inspire people to take the right actions without have to actively manage them.
At the end, we would reiterate that this is the moment to reset, because every crisis provides an opportunity for positive change. Leaders need to make the effort to up their crisis leadership skills. Right now, this transition will require them to step outside their comfort zones and climb a steep learning curve. But by passing this litmus test of leadership, they will not only give the world a better chance to survive this unprecedented calamity but also etch their names alongside history’s greatest. Great leaders are remembered kindly in history.