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It is in the most stressful moments that leaders are most important. In a crisis like the current pandemic, others look to their leaders for answers, for a calm mind and a strong perspective. They want to hear that they’re part of something larger than themselves, that you’ve got their back, that we’re all for one and one for all, and that we will help each other get through the crisis and potentially become stronger for it. We need inspiring leadership in these times, to ground people in what’s important and reduce fear.

Our organizations, both large and small, are facing the need to adapt to rapid change that is not predictable or even controllable. People who lead and manage are hit with a new level of complexity in decision-making, time management, and simple focus. A 2019 Gartner survey of 2,800 business leaders found that only half believe they are “well-equipped to lead their organization into the future.”

So, how have our leaders responded so far during the Covid 19 crisis?  Leadership coach and author of new book, Inspiring Leadership For Uncertain Times, takes a look:

The Good

Think of the leaders who are standing out during the Covid-19 pandemic. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand and Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York are two leaders who are garnering great attention for their calm, steadfast and empathic approach to leading in a crisis. In fact, worldwide both of these leaders have a large following outside of their respective jurisdictions as people seek leadership during this moment of crisis. Each of them has their own unique style, but there are some clear similarities:

  1. Keep Calm, Carry Onmessaging. Both Ardern and Cuomo are taking the shock value out of their communication by presenting facts, telling brief stories that demonstrate empathy, and asking their constituents consistently in every communication to be patient and kind with each other.
  2. A ‘Safety First’ Focus. Both Ardern and Cuomo have referred to their economic and health struggles from the perspective of safety and security—addressing people from that lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—
  3. Humanizing Moments. Cuomo has joked via video chat with his quarantined brother Chris and told stories about his mother. Ardern has gone on Facebook Live after putting her child to bed and told the children of New Zealand that the Easter Bunny is indeed an essential worker and will not be kept home.
  4. Acknowledging Challenges. Both Ardern and Cuomo have acknowledged the damage their respective shutdowns will do to their economies, but their messages are clear – we will address this health crisis as a road to addressing the economic one.
  5. Highlighting Collaboration. Ardern and Cuomo have both built coalitions with health experts, heads of state, business community leaders, and others to a) view the crisis from multiple angles and b) create solutions through collaborative effort.

On the commercial stage, just look at the many organisations that have asked ‘How can we contribute during a global crisis?’ and shifted their factories to making masks and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.  From car interior manufacturer Zettl Group (who typically supply Rolls Royce and Porsche with high end leather seating) to Hanes and Los Angeles Apparel companies who are all filing a gap for healthcare workers using their existing equipment and insights form the healthcare industry.  This innovation was possible because they asked the question – how can we contribute?

The Bad and The Ugly

On the other end of the spectrum, leaders with a fixed mindset – a view of reality that is not growth or change focused but static, are the ones that fare worst during a global crisis.

Some organisations have misjudged the situation and are in danger of coming out of the crisis with a tarnished reputation. Amazon’s standing is wavering as stories come out about not providing employees with protective gear or enough space and lack of transparency about exposure to the virus.

Online fashion retailer, ASOS, has been accused of ‘playing Russian roulette with people’s lives’ as it refused to enforce social distancing in it’s warehouses where up to 4000 people work.

Airlines and holiday companies are also coming under fire as some refuse to engage with customers who want their money back on cancelled trips.   Easyjet’s CEO, Johan Lundgren, appealed to the UK government to provide it with a loan to prevent the business going bankrupt, yet still planned to pay shareholders dividends of £170m the same week.

Here is a summary of the attitudes that have made for effective and ineffective leadership during Covid-19:

The Good The Bad and the Ugly
A growth and learning orientation: “We are learning and gaining knowledge as we go” A fixed mindset: “We are the experts and know everything already”
Inclusive and collaborative: “We will get there together using all of our collective strengths” Heirarchical leadership focus: “Follow my instructions because I know best.”
Adaptive and agile. “We are going to flex with these changes as we come and practice resilience” Use a set system to run scenarios and set up long term change structures. “We have a process for that”
Broad-scanning the environment. “We are part of the bigger picture of the economy and the world and we are aware of the implications of external realities” Focusing on the operation internally. “We are focused on our own operational strengths and challenges right now.”
Crowdsources communication. “all of the voices in our organization are important” Uses top-down messaging “I will deliver a daily briefing.”
Health and wellness orientation. “We must prioritize our own wellness including taking breaks, and cultivating our own inspiration.” Power through orientation. “We need to keep going for the good of the company no matter what. This is not the time to think about your own needs.”

The Coronavirus pandemic has heralded a new era of uncertainty in the whole of society and this requires a new standard of leadership.  Those leaders who can move beyond fear and who have the ability to look at the big societal picture are the ones who will come out of our current global crisis in a positive place.

Karlin Sloan is a global leadership & development coach, CEO of Sloan Group International and author of new book, Inspiring Leadership for Uncertain Times.

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