How to be an Effective Leader During a Crisis

Until recently, I used to love the Sci-Fi movies that started with “The year is 3025, and the world as we know it has ceased to exist.” It promised to be an entertaining ride for the next hour and a half with adventure, fantasy and a whole lot of scientific jargon that I don’t mind not knowing. 

Fast forward to today, the sci-fi movie has become a scary reality. The world is in complete lock-down; social distancing, isolation and quarantine have become a normal way of life; all flights cancelled globally; schools, educational institutes, and places of worship shut until further notice; hospitals flooded with more patients than they can handle and fast-depleting supplies. The number of people directly or indirectly affected by the situation globally is appalling to say the least. 

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has brought down countries, businesses, families and individuals down to their knees. The numbers to date of Covid cases stand at 4,043,058 and a staggering 277,014 deaths globally (and counting!). All offices across the board have been shut, and working from home has become the new norm. So, as the deadly disease continues to spread its nightmarish wings, people have started to worry about survival. On one hand we grapple with the staggering deadly human toll and disruption to millions of people’s lives, and on the other hand the economic damage that is already significant and far-reaching beyond the current comprehension. 

World over we are adjusting to the new reality of remote work environments. And while we struggle with the new normal, leaders of today are facing the same adjustments, just at a much larger extent. The leaders of today have had to step up and rise to the (unfortunate) occasion of managing business continuity and the output of their teams. And amidst the pandemic, all employees lookup to their leaders to inspire and engage their teams through the crisis and the uncertainty we face every single day.

When in unknown territory, we’ve always looked for lessons in history. Nancy Koehn, the author of Forged in Crisis and a historian at Harvard Business School examines a different kind of crisis. In her book, Forged in Crisis, she draws profiles of five leaders who experienced such stress: Ernest Shackleton (marooned with his entire crew for many months on end on an Antarctic ice floe);  Abraham Lincoln (on the verge of the collapse of the Union); Frederick Douglass (threatened with a return to enslavement); Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an anti-Nazi German clergyman agonising what a man of faith should do when faced with absolute evil); and the 1960s environmentalist Rachel Carson (racing against the clock and the cancer ravaging her in a bid to save the planet). Nancy Koehn studied crisis leaders for two decades, and through this work, she admits that real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are Forged in Crisis. Leaders become “real” when they practise a few key behaviours that grid and inspire people through difficult times. As Covid-19 tears its way through country after country, town after town, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, here’s what we can learn from how some of the history’s iconic leaders acted in the face of great uncertainty, real danger, and collective fear. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review (HBR), Nancy elucidates these brilliant insights derived from history. 

  1. Acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve. As a leader today, your main job at hand is to be brutally honest about the challenges that your business or place of work faces. Show it as it is with your plan to mitigate the situation. Display the hope that you and your teams can collectively navigate the paths ahead with the resources you have and face each day with determination, solidarity and above all a shared purpose. Hear out your people, hear their fears and then communicate your resolve of the shared vision. Inspire and motivate your teams, but above all, ensure that you hold their hand through the storm. 
  2. Give people a role and a purpose: These are uncharted territories. It’s like never before. We are all adapting and adjusting to the new normal every hour of the day. Nancy Koehn goes on to elaborate that when in doubt about what you or your team can do during this pandemic, prioritise helping others – even in the smallest of ways. When we help others, even in the smallest ways, our fear ebbs and our focus sharpens. 
  3. Emphasise experimentation and learning: To successfully navigate crisis, strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognising that they do not have a crisis playbook. They navigate the uncharted waters through the turbulence, adjust and improvise and change paths as required. Good leaders understand that they don’t have all the answers, that they will make mistakes, and learn as they go. 
  4. Tend to energy and emotion – yours and theirs: Crisis, as Nancy says, takes a toll on all of us. They are exhausting and can lead to burnout. For many, who lose loved ones, they are devastating. Thus a crucial function of leadership during intense turbulence is to keep your finger on the pulse of your people every and emotions and respond as needed. When tending to energy and emotion, you must begin with yourself. Take good care of yourself, physically emotionally and spiritually. Know when you need a break and take it. Eat well, get least eight hours of sleep, exercise regularly, connect with your loved ones, and plan for at least two device-free periods per day.  

As Albert Einstein said: Strive not be a success, but rather to be of value.

While we draw insights from history, we hope the leaders of today are inspired to see opportunities that can help the world navigate the crisis. Like every crisis in history and the story of success or failure of the leader managing it, one fact has become amply clear: Leadership was and will continue to be highly personal. It requires leaders to create the conditions for their people and themselves to become more resilient, agile, and courageous. In resilience lies adaptability. The leaders who allow themselves and their organisations to adapt and adjust to this new reality stand a better chance to thrive in the new world!

Times are tough and like never before. Each one of us are questioning the mortality of our own self and our loved ones. Each one of us will be remembered for how we made our teams feel. How did we connect, persevere, and progress in the face of the end of the world as it seems to be.  How will be emerge collectively stronger and resilient.

As Maya Angelou so eloquently said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Until Next Time!

Aroti Akash Tugnait Leadership Development Digital Marketing

About the Author: Aroti Akash Tugnait is a Leadership Development Practitioner and a Digital Marketeer with over 2 decades of experience with Harvard Business Publishing, Accenture Consulting, and GE. Find her LinkedIn profile as listed:

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