Leadership during times of crisis

leadership crisis

At the outset, it’s important to understand the mental states and behaviours that will emerge throughout the organisation during a crisis. While there will be more obvious responses of fear and panic, members of your team are also more likely to misinterpret information and feel confused, and have difficulty remembering information, staying focused and making decisions, writes Anthony Mitchell.

Leaders today have never been in as tough a situation as they are right now, where few organisations have been spared from the unprecedented challenges and fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the effects of the pandemic are more far-reaching than the worldwide economic blow alone, there are steps leaders can take now to minimise the implications of the crisis, and protect the future of their team and organisation.

There are a few key behaviours that become essential for leaders during this time, particularly because people are paying more attention than ever to what they say, how they behave and what they prioritise.

Over the COVID-19 period, leaders will be relied upon to deliver five key outcomes:

  • To calm others, so that people act rationally and constructively at a time where fight or flight responses are more likely to override higher-order cognition and reasoning.
  • To build comradeship and connection, at a time where people are being ordered to be more physically distant than ever before, and where isolation may become a widespread wellbeing concern.
  • To maintain their own emotional equilibrium, at a time where they may be feeling even more stress than their people, because of the weight of responsibility riding on them and their actions.
  • To keep the business going, at a time where people could get distracted by the emotional, mental and personal challenges that they are being required to balance in addition to work, and have greater potential to make mistakes.
  • To manage people’s energy and wellbeing, at a time where the leader’s own energy and wellbeing is likely being depleted, with perhaps little time dedicated to self-care.

Furthermore, leaders are required to achieve all of this in an environment characterised by uncertainty, and at times, panic. Even if you are skilled in crisis management, you probably haven’t faced a challenge like this.

Given the magnitude of the current situation, and with no endpoint necessarily in sight, where should leaders start?

At the outset, it’s important to understand the mental states and behaviours that will emerge throughout the organisation during a crisis. While there will be more obvious responses of fear and panic, members of your team are also more likely to misinterpret information and feel confused, and have difficulty remembering information, staying focused and making decisions. On a physiological level, perceptions of a crisis impacts our brain’s functioning. When a threat response kicks in, we experience a huge sense of external expectation, we have a tendency to feel derailed by drama, and we feel significant levels of uncertainty. If these mental states go unattended, your people will experience feelings of hopelessness (decreasing productivity) and helplessness (resulting in disengagement).

We fast-tracked the launch of Bendelta’s fully virtual consulting arm, REACH, for this reason – virtual leadership and collaborative innovation will be the key to the survival of businesses, our society and human lives.

There are a few key behaviours that become essential for leaders during this time, particularly because people are paying more attention than ever to what they say, how they behave and what they prioritise. Communicate early, to reassure your team about any immediate concerns and wherever possible, outline a plan for the coming days, weeks and even months. Project calm across all areas of your business, by responding to your team deliberately and confidently, and role modelling the kind of behaviour you want to see in others. You’ll need to be respectful, sensitive, warm and approachable, and promote action rather than circles of panic and chatter. And finally, acknowledge how tough the situation is, while still showing a determination to prevail.

Ultimately, leaders need to cultivate a calm, confident and reassuring presence to minimise the repercussions of the crisis, maintain or even enhance productivity, and ensure that their organisation is future fit for a post-pandemic era. This can be challenging at the best of times, but especially now in the entirely-virtual work environment that has resulted from the pandemic.

We fast-tracked the launch of Bendelta’s fully virtual consulting arm, REACH, for this reason – virtual leadership and collaborative innovation will be the key to the survival of businesses, our society and human lives. REACH has been piloted over the last 12 months, supporting clients across multiple industries and geographies, and always in 100% virtual form. This has included everything from crisis leadership training, modular team effectiveness programs for 1000s of employees across multiple countries, to virtual town halls, online innovation workshops, virtual strategic planning, online executive coaching and virtualised culture change programs.

Ultimately, leaders need to cultivate a calm, confident and reassuring presence to minimise the repercussions of the crisis, maintain or even enhance productivity, and ensure that their organisation is future fit for a post-pandemic era.

While genuine connections between leaders and teams can be more difficult to cultivate in a virtual environment, our experience with REACH shows that when done correctly, physical distance does not result in a loss of human connection. Rather, it can enable leaders to project calm leadership in an accessible, responsive and engaging way to an entire organisation, to teams, or to individuals, and harness the wisdom of a dispersed organisation.

COVID-19 will be a defining moment in time for leaders in every corner of the world. It will require us to push boundaries like never before, both in terms of leading our organisations through this extraordinary time, as well as rapidly shifting our own mindsets and behaviours to deliver when we’re most needed.

Image source: Depositphotos