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LEADERSHIP LESSONS: What Covid can teach us about leading through a crisis

by maria

By Dominic Fitch – Head of Creative Change at Impact, a global leadership development and change agency 

 The global crisis caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 has acted as a sharp reminder that businesses, and specifically the people within it, can be required to flex and shift at lightening pace. For many, the radical changes they needed to implement during these turbulent times, exposed where they may have been lacking in organisational agility – the ability to recognise and react positively and in the moment to what is happening around us.

Beware broken systems 

Human beings are inherently able to adapt – we have been doing it since the dawn of time. However, where the sticking point can often arise, is where processes and rules have been designed that often hinder our ability for growth and adaptation. Many of these processes were brilliant for the conditions that they were invented for but are now redundant and no longer fit for purpose. For example, if leaders still have one eye on the return to work being a revert to systems of old, modelled on presenteeism and strict sign off processes to work from home, they’ve missed one of the biggest points that Covid has taught us. That is, when in a time of crisis, considering people’s needs is of paramount importance when we want them to feel safe and perform at their best.

Be Human Centred 

To successfully navigate a crisis, it is essential that leaders really listen to their people. They must establish what is needed in that moment and how the people responsible for delivering those needs are supported to do the job required. In doing so, they can galvanise people and bring them together in that time of crisis.

Look out for the ‘quiet crisis’ 

It is also important to remember that a crisis may not always be immediately apparent. We must always be aware that ‘the light at the end of the tunnel could be the freight train about to hit us’. By that what we mean is that leaders cannot afford to overlook the ‘quiet crisis’. The past 18 months have had an enormous impact, leaving no one unaffected in some way. In these trying times, communicating with staff to identify the less obvious challenges that could eventually become a major business threat, such as staff burnout, is essential.

Recognise that change is the only constant 

The reality is that change is the only constant. Moreover, and reassuringly, no organisation is beyond the ability to learn to change – a crucial component in managing through a crisis.

Crises are in some ways the epitome of a change process – they require us to do different work or work differently. People are, usually, naturally resistant to change, so when a crisis occurs and organisations are inevitably forced to adapt, it can act as a catalyst for longer-term meaningful and positive change.

What every organisation can do during a crisis 

At Impact we have spent over 40 years supporting organisations through differing VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) events, so that businesses can not only survive, whilst, crucially, also unlocking the potential of the workforce.

Whilst every business and indeed crisis is unique, there are actions that can be taken universally, including:

  • Avoid bureaucratic processes– Assemble a cross-functional SWAT team who have the authority to make quick tactical decisions and communicate effectively, providing information to deepen employees’ understanding and reduce anxiety. Maintain a regular reporting and reflection cycle.
  • Keep on learning – Crises unravel at extraordinary speedand new junctures mean new organisational strategies may be needed. Don’t get stuck on initial decisions, you may need to frequently reconsider your whole perspective. An iterative, flexible approach is needed, which many large organisations often struggle with as leaders are uncomfortable with appearing indecisive.
  • Critically assess new information– Human behaviour generally leads us to overlook weak signals and react to emerging issues, which means we must critically consider new information and focus on making well-informed and considered decisions.
  • Look beyond traditional solutions– There is no simple, linear solution to dealing with complex problems. Complex problems demand more of our implicit, tacit knowledge. Having a cognitively diverse SWAT team is key to creating dynamic, agile systems.
  • Support others– Think about how your organisation can be of service to your community, stakeholders and industry. It’s through good partnerships that supply chains remain sustainable and trade continues through economic turmoil. Remaining true to your organisational purpose and values through disruption will build trust, resulting in long-term positive effects.

When leading through a crisis, above all else, it is essential to place your people at the heart of what you do. They are responsible for making or breaking an organisation and they will remember how they were treated in times of crisis. If they feel they have been treated well through the tough times, they will be there for the business to create the good times too. Above all else, now is the time for leaders to give more focus than ever to solidifying a meaningful company culture that brings people together, bonded by a shared sense of belonging and purpose.


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