‘When people support each other they not only share the burden, they find inspiration in the actions of those around them.’   

Concerns about the global spread of Coronavirus have taken centre stage in recent weeks.  Today, in many unprecedented ways, countermeasures too slow its advance have disrupted the daily work routines for hundreds of millions.


Left in its wake – aside from the illness itself – are the fears, uncertainties and ambiguity of how to cope.  How to work remotely without getting distracted by the many competing interests?  How to set priorities when everything seems like a priority?  How to respond to the questions about the future for which, right now, there are few answers?

We are in uncharted waters.  How leaders conduct themselves today, will add to or detract from their personal reputation well into the future.  The most egregious action of all, of course, would be to sit on the side-lines and simply hope for the best.   In times like these – especially in times like these – leaders must lead!


What does this mean for those privileged enough to wear the mantle of leadership?   Consider the four contextual frames below.  Think about how you counsel the teams and people around you.  Ask yourself, “Am I the leader they need?”


1. Priorities and the importance of people supporting each other

These are uniquely turbulent times.  Employees seek answers.  They are, in particular, looking for support when it comes to job security, social distancing and work from home protocols.  It’s okay to acknowledge that the way forward represents a challenge unmatched by anything we have encountered in the past hundred years.  Central to managing the unfolding drama, however, is to recognise that, above all else, employees’ personal health is your number one concern.


When team members inquire about what they should be doing today, encourage them to continue the work that occupied their minds and daily agendas just a few short weeks ago.  Revisit regularly both critical deadlines and reframed responsibility.  Emphasise that collaboration with other members of the team is more important than ever.  To lead is to put the success of the team above personal achievement.  When people support each other they not only share the burden, they find inspiration in the actions of those around them.  We need super teams more than we need superstars.


In the situation we find ourselves in, empathy and understanding go a long way.   That said, your immediate calling as a leader is to effectively communicate what people should expect, how they should conduct themselves and why clear goals and timelines are essential.  And if the new way of working embraces remote working, utilising voice and video, establishing clear behavioural guidelines – reviewed regularly – becomes a must.

Be willing to acknowledge what you don’t know and that uncertainty will, for some time, blur a clear sense of how to rebuild the firm’s competitive edge.  You might not have all the answers, but it’s essential that you convey a sense of optimism, unity and caring.  To lead is to articulate and embody hope!  When people start to lose hope the first casualty is commitment.


2. Connecting to the organisation’s purpose and speaking to truth

As organisations reassess their resources and immediate needs – human resources deployment comes to the fore.  Fully staffing the most important of projects will evolve over time.  Contingency planning, meanwhile, means often asking people to step outside of the boundaries that define their role.  For some this will be stressful.    For others it will be a unique learning opportunity.  To lead is to understand where those personal boundaries are … and to manage accordingly.


People may approach today’s leader with deeply personal questions about their health and safety, about the workplace, their own fears about the future and how their team will carry on.  Doing your part means taking the time to comfort others, to listen and to provide emotional support.  Now is also the time for you, as a leader, to reconnect the team to the organisation’s purpose.  People want guidance.  They also need a leader who will inspire them; overt behaviour that speaks to a positive future; a quiet self-confidence that models why, as a business, you do what you do.  To lead is to exemplify in your own behaviour what you ask of others.


The bonds of friendship, of loyalty, of leadership and of followership in the most trying of times often comes down to who was there for people when they most needed it.  This puts a premium on your experience, your ability to manage ambiguity, your judgement, the organisation’s values and, that difficult to define quality we call “wisdom.”  In times of crisis the truth must also be an ever-constant companion.  Truth comes in many forms.  The most important being that, as a leader, you allow your authentic self to come to the fore.  To lead is to depict and speak to truth in its many forms.


Uncertain times expose the story behind your brand.  How you behave now, how your actions are perceived will long last in employees’ minds.  The steps you take will also be keenly watched by your customers.  Unlike anything else, a crisis exposes the truth that lies behind your brand promise.  It is a time to show that you care.  It is also an opportunity to build the brand.  To lead is to recognise that, crisis or not, without tomorrow’s customer there can be no business.


3. Beyond the short-term

It’s to be expected that employees want to understand the thinking behind their employer’s countermeasures and just how long they will need to be in place.  Although the leader in question may not be able to provide answers beyond short-term corporate contingency plans, it’s important to emphasise that – although it will be a new normal – the business has a strong future.


Organisations are putting short-term measures in place to protect the base and ensure the physical security of their people.  In the coming weeks, governments and companies the world over will take stock of the scope and scale of this global health challenge and develop policies too limited the impact of any such crisis in the future.   Speak to one of those who conquered Mount Everest and what they will tell you is that anything they learned was on the way down the mountain.  As we move out of this crisis, we must take time to reflect.  Leadership and learning are obverse sides of the same coin.


Don’t get too far ahead of what you do know.  Lean heavily on your listening gene.    And if you are in a position to help shape contingency plans, come at them with an open mind, flexibility, transparency and a level of compassion about the changes you ask others to make.  That immediate tactical response, however, soon needs to be complemented by a series of realistic, future looking, strategic scenarios.  Frame such thinking three months, six months and nine months out.  If you can imagine, you have taken the first step to achieve it.  Meanwhile, beginnings start with endings.   Change, both practical and emotional, starts with the difficult task of letting go.


4. The good from the bad and the ugly

We will survive this.  We will come out of it stronger.  If it wasn’t before, the force of this pandemic has made it abundantly clear that “globalisation” has unpredictable implications beyond business and trade.  Even the most short-sighted cannot fail to grasp that a small action on one side of the globe can have profound implications, literally, everywhere else on the planet.  Beyond contradiction, we have created a world where, like it or not, everything is connected to everything else.  It is to be hoped that, in the future, when we read or hear a broadcast focusing on expanding deserts, depleted fish stocks, the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, famine, drought and/or forest fires, a new collective consciousness will emerge – an acceptance that there is no such thing as a local event.  It is a lesson that the human family cannot afford to ignore.

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