SkillNo Time for Trial and Error - How to Lead in a...

No Time for Trial and Error – How to Lead in a Crisis

Tanja Polonyi
Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

Over the last year, we’ve found ourselves in a situation unfamiliar and nerve-wracking to all of us. The pandemic and its impact on people all across the continents have shown us the importance of strong and competent leadership during a crisis. But how do you best lead in a crisis? We worked through academic research and experience reports of leaders to give you an overview of leadership during a crisis.

Even, or especially in the early days of the pandemic back at the beginning of 2020, differences in leadership styles became obvious. We’ve seen the good, we’ve seen the bad. As the corona pandemic is scaringly unprecedented, many of us were tested in our abilities. Leaders all over the world learned along the way, many using trial and error methods to see what proves successful. 

As errors in a global pandemic are not something we recommend, it’s time for leaders to reflect on their leadership strategies. In this article, we’ll take a look at academic research about leadership in a crisis, specifically in the time of Covid-19, to give you tips on how to lead during a crisis. 

Resilient Leadership – Reflective Learning During Covid-19

How did leaders from different parts of the world experience this pandemic? The Resilient Cities Network conceptualised and planned a reflective learning experiment within a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic. It aims to portray all the findings and learnings leaders could gather in this unfamiliar time. 

They invited twelve decision-makers to participate, including chief resilience officers from Oakland, Cape Town, Salvador, and leaders from the economic sector. They all were asked to attend a weekly scheduled online conversation with the project’s facilitator for sixteen weeks. These conversations were held to get valuable insights into the participant’s work as the pandemic continued to unfold.

At the end of each week, every participant was asked to write a four-page summary that was shared amongst the other participants. Additionally, the organisers produced a weekly summary that now works as a living diary of insights about a time most people probably only have blurry memories of. 

The Learnings in a Nutshell…

The experiment has led to several conclusions about leadership. First off, the participants realised a difference between resilient leadership and leadership for resilience. They defined resilient leadership as a quality of an individual who, in a crisis, shows specific attitudes that make him or her capable of leading in a crisis. In comparison, leadership for resilience describes the work and effort to enhance the resilience of the leader’s organisation to overcome the crisis. Participants noted that the leader doesn’t need to be resilient in order to make an organisation resilient.

In the weekly conversations, the participants were eager to talk about the personal and societal dimensions of leadership, as they thought too little attention is put on this in leadership culture in comparison to the technical dimensions when building resilience. 

While technical strategies include managing cash, leveraging data and maintaining operational continuity, social and personal strategies mentioned by the participants entailed building trust, collaboration, caring and containing anxiety. We’ll give you a more detailed look at the best practice strategies for leading in a crisis further down below. 

Characteristics of a Good Leader in Times of Crisis

In a 2020 academic journal, Jamie K. Wardman outlined thirteen crisis strategies whose importance were emphasised during the Covid-19 pandemic. Examples of good crisis management mentioned include Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-Wen, and Angela Merkel. What can we learn from their examples?

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has been praised worldwide for her firm national COVID-19 strategy and its clear, understandable communication towards New Zealand’s citizens in the early stages of the pandemic that has led the country to eliminate the virus in most areas

Image credit: Unsplash / Priscilla du Preez

Besides her strong focus on providing information and comfort for different audiences (be it journalists, kids, or the general public, Ardern distinguishes herself by her strong ability to show empathy towards those affected by the pandemic and has been recognised for implementing a 20% pay cut in her cabinet’s salary to show solidarity with those affected by the pandemic. 

Wardman also outlines credibility as a crucial component of leadership during a crisis.  One example of this ability is German chancellor Angela Merkel who has been praised for her “calm, competent, and authoritative explanations, making good use of a background in science to show a command of the facts”.

This global pandemic is unprecedented. Hence, making mistakes might be inevitable. What’s important, though, is to own up to them. Many leaders have mishandled things in the pandemic, but only a few apologised for it: France had a few difficulties managing the pandemic, however, Emmanuel Macron publicly addressed his mistakes and the lack of preparation. Angela Merkel recently apologised for an unpopular covid measure, taking all the blame on her shoulders solely, which got her international admiration. 

Preparation and planning are among the most crucial crisis strategies for leaders. With a strikingly small number of Covid-cases (1030 as of March 31st), Taiwan has managed the pandemic pretty well. According to Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen, this success is historically founded. The country suffered great losses in 2003 due to the outbreak of SARS. This had a crucial impact on the country’s virus response planning and prepared them well for this new pandemic. The country already began monitoring incoming passengers in December 2019, when many other countries still viewed this virus as a non-threat. Moral of the story – learn from your mistakes!

Female Leaders on the Rise Amidst the Pandemic

Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-Wen and Angela Merkel – female leaders stood out when it comes to leadership in times of the pandemic. Why do they seemingly handle this crisis better? 

As the scholars Blair Williams and Carol Johnson explain, politics and leadership positions have historically been dominated by men. Stereotypical female character traits align protectiveness not with power and aggression but with empathy. Even if gender roles are drastically being challenged nowadays, traditionally, women are the ones in the household looking out for sick family members, caring for others.

In a global pandemic, people, unsurprisingly, are not turning to the ones yelling the loudest, using inappropriate war rhetoric, but to those who show empathy. As Williams and Johnson conclude, “the health nature of the current crisis, combined with the focus that lockdown places on being confined to the (feminized) sphere of the home, has arguably facilitated the leveraging of women’s role to an even greater extent.”

The pandemic has allowed women leaders to draw from femininity and portray themselves as caring, protective, and compassionate leaders without being scrutinised as weak. In this crisis, women leaders have provided exactly the comfort people need.

Learnings and Tips for Leading In Crisis

With the resilient leadership experiment and the research in mind, here’s an overview of the most crucial strategies and tips for leading during a crisis.

1. Be proactive!

This is a particularly hard task, especially as most crises occur sudden. James K. Stoller mentions two necessary opponents of proactivity – before a crisis hits and while it is ongoing. Ideally, you thought about any potential crisis that could affect your organisation and have a counterstrategy prepared. If that is not the case, monitoring and predicting possible future outcomes is key. 

The participants of the resilient leadership experiment also mentioned the importance to plan early for what comes after. Recovery from the crisis should be the immediate focus, but the project participants wanted to explore the opportunity of a re-invention after the crisis as well. 

2. Monitor, plan early, act quickly!

Throughout the whole crisis, you should continue to monitor your crisis management. And, as both James K. Stoller and Jamie K. Wardman mention in their articles, act quickly! Being responsive and adaptive is crucial. You continuously need to evaluate and update your plans and possible impact.

Acting quickly can easily result in making mistakes. Make sure that you acknowledge and apologise for them. According to Stoller, leaders admitting their fallibility will create a necessary psychological safety.

Image credit: Unsplash / Clay Banks

3. Build and sustain trust to be credible!

Trust is a valuable currency of leaders whilst in crisis. Not only do you have more options for actions the more people trust you, but you’ll also be valued as credible with trust. However, trust has to be earned, and it does not occur overnight. 

RCN’s project participants agree that “If a leader acts with consistent integrity during a crisis – staying open, communicative, honest and vulnerable – they can add disproportionately to their own and their organisation’s reserves of this most precious substance.”

4. Keep calm and dare to be vulnerable!

Crisis generates anxiety. There’s no use in denying that. As a leader, however, you need to contain your own anxiety. Fear can disable whole groups of people, but, as project participants stressed, a supportive narrative can prevent that and make people feel comfortable. Make sure that they don’t feel lost or doomed but safe in the positive environment you provide.

Even though you as a leader need to stay calm, it is necessary to acknowledge others’ and your own vulnerability as well. The participants mentioned that leaders are often expected to be cold and professional, but in times of crisis, this attitude can become problematic. Show that you are vulnerable so that the people you lead feel accepted for their own weaknesses! 

“I’m trying to do as much pastoral work as I can to motivate people, to not be hard on them. To push and to drive, but not to break.” 

Craig Kesson, Executive Director, Chief Data Officer and Chief Resilience Officer, City of Cape Town

5. Show that you care!

The people who follow your lead are always affected by a crisis as well – not only in their job but also in their private lives. RNC’s project participants realised how important it is that a leader stays in touch and listens to the people he or she works with. In this pandemic, connecting with colleagues became a new-found priority for many of them.

Humans are coded to both need and give care under stress. Hence, Wardman advises to not be aloof and dismissive but rather acknowledge and respect everyone’s feelings. Moreover, it is helpful to create a sense of community, a “we” instead of an “I”, to emphasise the team that includes the leader on top as well. Assure everyone that the burden of the crisis will not be put on an individual!

6. Communicate actively, transparently, realistically and optimistically!

Communication will make or break you in a crisis. If the message is wrong, you’re out! First of all, be sure to communicate actively and to align all your team members in service of a common goal – you all must convey the same message.

Communication in a crisis needs to be frequent, transparent, and as comprehensible as possible. As mentioned in this journal article, communication is a balancing act, “too much and the message is tuned out, too little may prompt concern and anxiety.” Be open and correct your mistakes. Apologise for mistakes in communication!

“I think the people we are leading are looking for leadership, they want to follow. The work of leadership isn’t the work of management.” 

Peter Chamley, Chair, Australasia Region, Arup

7. Collaborate and delegate!

People expect you to lead but forget that leading includes delegating as well. Delegate as much work as you can to competent people on your team – managing a crisis is not a one-man-show! In the experiment, participating leaders noticed how many more people wanted to step up and help. You as a leader need to encourage contribution, it will not only give room for innovative ideas but spread goodwill and energy!

It is also important to collaborate widely; Wardman says that “risks and emergency response activities […] tend to be distributed across multiple locations, agencies, and networks […] co-ordination, and power-sharing to help mobilise joined-up responses and direct resources where they are needed.” Basically, work together with as many people as possible to get over this crisis fast. Collaboration in the sense of “we’re all in this together”, will reach across traditional barriers and form alliances within the team.

8. Reflect and innovate!

Let’s say the crisis is over – congratulations, you made it! Sadly, the work is not done yet. To avoid similar risks in the future, it is important to reflect on your crisis management. Leaders in the experiment referred to the possibility to reinvent your organisation and see the crisis as an opportunity to evolve. Don’t return to the way it was if you can become something better!

“I think an appreciative inquiry of what has happened in these times would be good to do – that process that encourages you to say. ‘It really works well when…’ Just by the nature of its positivity, I think it would be a great way for us to come out of this.” 

Elaine Roberts, Chief Marketing Officer, Lloyd’s Register Group

How to Lead in a Crisis in a Nutshell…

A crisis is unpredictable, we know! Especially leading in a crisis is draining, daunting and frightening. What both research and leaders themselves emphasise as crucial and helpful are social strategies. Show people that you care, build a sense of community and trust, and acknowledge that in a crisis, everyone, including you, will feel vulnerable at times. It is one piece in a big, complex puzzle but one that lays important groundwork for overcoming a crisis.

Check out the experiment report of Resilient Leadership to get a more detailed picture of the participant’s learnings during the pandemic!

If you want to read more about good COVID-19 responses with a gender lens in mind, click here.

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