Leading in a Time of Crisis

Leadership is the action of leading people in an organisation towards achieving goals. Leaders do this by influencing employee behaviours in several ways. A leader sets a clear vision for the organisation, motivates employees, guides employees through their work process, and builds morale.

However, the real test of good leadership does not occur when everything is smooth sailing. Rather, leadership is oftentimes tested during a crisis. The way a leader behaves and acts during a crisis will establish their credentials as either a good leader or a poor one. A leader must make a series of difficult and important decisions during a crisis. The decisions will determine the fate of the organisation.

  • A good leader will help the organisation survive through the crisis;
  • A poor leader will make (or not) decisions that will result in the organisation winding up;
  • A great leader will position the organisation for greatness after the crisis.

Currently, the world is facing a pandemic and it has caused dysfunctions and uncertainty in organisations. During such times drastic measures such as cutting down on costs through negotiating pay cuts, sending employees on paid leave to remotely work from home, and suspending casual contracts are taken into consideration. While doing this, leaders should focus on the future and the need to thrive after the crisis has been dealt with by asking themselves the following questions that may ensure the organisation’s sustainability. In answering, whether we just want to survive the crisis or to thrive thereafter, the following are important considerations:

  • What are we learning from the crisis?
  • Which of these forced processes/configurations should we adopt in the new norm?
  • What new internal and external opportunities have we learnt from the crisis?
  • What absent skills do we need to take advantage of these opportunities?
  • What new competitors are emerging & how do we stack up against them?
  • Is our strategy still appropriate? What adjustments are necessary?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented crisis in that it is:

  • A once-in-a-century event
  • Global in scale
  • Wide in reach
  • Simultaneous in time
  • Undefined in duration

There are many definitions for the word ‘crisis’ including the one that says that it is “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.”

A crisis amplifies an organisation’s strengths and weaknesses. A crisis can also accelerate an organisation’s trajectory towards success or failure—depending on timely decision-making. The leader who receives a crisis as a gift will be a good or great leader. The other who does not is destined to sink the ship.

A crisis creates a form of energy and it is the job of a leader to channel the energy in the right ways. The energy created during a crisis can be channeled in focused ways such as: Avoidance – you bury it; Explosion – you detonate it; and Harnessing – you manage it.

Harnessing the Energy

When and if a leader chooses to harness the energy during a crisis, it must first start with self-awareness. The leader should be aware and understand what s/he is dealing with. Once the leader is aware of the crisis, s/he should assign meaning to it and establish priorities. This will enable daily progress in achieving goals.

The second step is to look at your team as a leader. During a crisis, many employees could panic, lose a sense of direction, and become less efficient or effective and therefore reduce the productivity of the organisation. As a leader, you should be able to manage the climate by ensuring people are calm and in control of the situation. Ensure that employees are focused on the priorities and tasks to produce good outcomes. Despite being in the middle of a crisis, as a leader, you should constantly check in on teammates.

Lastly is the organisation. A leader of an organisation should equip other leaders of each department to do the same to their teams. This enhances the power of inclusive leadership and enables leveraging of the networks. Engaging your workforce and taking the time to speak to them individually is important as you get to foster team cohesiveness as well as discover each individual’s unique contributions.  This is especially important during a crisis as people react differently to different situations. Finally, impact the community by seeing beyond your organisation and embracing the spirit of Ubuntu.

From the foregoing, the following traits stand out as being required of a leader in a time of crisis:

  • Honesty and confidence. During a crisis, everybody looks to a leader for the next step or for reassurance. If a leader projects fear and unease, it trickles down to everyone else. Honesty is key as well. While the urge to state that ‘everything is going to be fine’ is going to be overwhelming, it is important for leaders to be realistic. They need to tread a fine balance when articulating the magnitude of a situation.
  • Decisiveness and adaptability. Crisis requires leaders to make quick decisions or hard decisions. There is no time to dally or even ponder the pros and cons of a decision at a leisurely pace. Leaders who take action, who are decisive and who are open to adapting their decisions to suit the needs of a situation are going to have more success weathering a crisis than a leader who chooses to wait instead of taking action.
  • Strategy and focus. In a crisis, a leader ought to review the strategic plan of the organisation, establish priorities on what tasks are to be accomplished, and stay focused in order to achieve it.
  • Humility and the ability to learn. With all sorts of information flowing from all around you during a crisis, a leader should be able to have a reliable source of information to enable you to deal with facts. You may not always be right. Have humility and be ready to learn what you do not know.
  • Availability. At a time of crisis, as a leader, it is not the time to go missing. Always be available to address your employees’ concerns.
  • Compassion and empathy. Employees experience different emotions during a crisis. As a leader, you should have the ability to take the perspective and feel the emotions of another person and have the desire to help.
  • Awareness and foresight. During a crisis, as a good leader, you must be cognisant of your surroundings: what is at hand and the priorities as an organisation. This will enable you to foresee what the future of the organisation would look like based on the strategies and goals set during that time of crisis.

All in all, leading in a time of crisis presents not only the opportunity to test the viability of your venture but to foster team cohesiveness to scale even better and faster after the crisis.

With thanks to Louis Otieno and Lanre Onasanya for their contribution towards these insights.