Ipsita Kathuria/Shravani Prakash Why has our world reached this stage? How did Covid get the better of us? One insight provided by WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, co-chaired by former New Zealand PM Helen Clark and former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is that this crisis is the result of a colossal leadership failure. Leadership failures have been more pronounced in countries most affected by the pandemic. Inaction due to lack of appreciation of the issues, 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 the causes that led us to where we are.
Effective leadership to overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19 is, therefore, a dire necessity. It is also an opportunity for everyone to reset, including leaders. According to analysis by Gallup of citizens’ fears and confidence drivers during past crises (Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, 2008 financial crisis), people look to their leadership for a crisis management plan and to promote trust, compassion, stability and hope. History also shows us that greatness of several leaders has been forged in times of adversity and the diverse skills they summoned to prevail over those crises . 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.
It is thus important that those occupying leadership roles adopt multidimensional 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 lead with both grit and grace. Leaders need to use their grit to take calculated, bold decisions in turbulent times such as now and simultaneously display the grace to listen, learn and to leverage knowledge to tide us through the crisis. The following model can act as a guide for leaders to develop their crisis leadership skills.
Getting things done
One of the biggest expectations from leaders today is for them to appreciate real issues at hand and be solutions focussed, and willing to take risks. They must be prepared to make bold decisions rapidly, 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 judgment 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.
Communication skills is another key aspect, especially since leaders are often required to make public comments and face the media. They must convey messages clearly, unambiguously and transparently. But most importantly, they must have the courage to “face up” to errors of judgment and make course corrections. This helps build trust. Building trust is critical because it is only through trust that citizens are willing to forgive ‘wrong’ decisions, that otherwise could come to haunt leaders in the future.
Empathy is one of the most valued leadership traits. Leaders 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 need new inputs, insights or reference points to make complex decisions. They don’t always have to have answers to all issues and problems. Since economic priorities, business models, team demographics and external influences are changing with extreme volatility, leaders need to learn quickly to gather relevant information and leverage the support of available expertise, while also maintaining their own 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 well-being of those they lead. Leaders who empower their people by encouraging diversity of thought and innovation generally find committed teams and optimal solutions.
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 keep the welfare of those they lead in the forefront. Past credentials and degrees don’t matter if leaders don’t deliver when needed. Leaders with high level of credibility and authenticity can actually inspire people to take the right actions without having to actively manage them.
Every crisis provides an opportunity for positive change. This is the time to create a new world with values of collaboration in place of competition, equity in place of disparity and “our world” in place of “mine”! Right now, this transition will require leaders to step outside their comfort zones and climb a steep learning curve.
By passing this litmus test of leadership, they will give the world a better chance to survive this unprecedented calamity and build a more caring and sustainable world.
Ipsita is Founder & CEO, TalentNomics India, and Shravani is Founder and CEO, Ellenomics