4 Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption

March 19, 2020
Contributor: Mary Mesaglio

Where executives focus during times of disruption and upheaval will define them as leaders.

COVID-19 is causing a humanitarian crisis of global proportions, with hundreds of thousands of lives disrupted. Sadly, we are not nearing the end of the crisis.

In my day-to-day, I work with executive leaders and their teams on preparing for enterprise transformation. It is no surprise that I have been musing for a while on what makes a great leader. In recent days, I have observed how COVID-19 is a test case for good and bad leadership. In my opinion, the leader’s primary responsibility is to keep the team safe, cohesive and productive. But what should a leader be focused on in the midst of a global disruption?

Leaders at any level can take four specific actions. These actions are not the only ones, but some of them might be missed in the rush to create an effective response.

No. 1: Create a central and clear list of priorities

Centrally set out a clear set of priorities, and locally implement them with a high degree of local manager autonomy. In a dynamic situation, overly centralising decision making hobbles the organisation’s ability to respond quickly and effectively. Effective leaders empower managers to make the best decisions they can, bearing in mind a clear set of enterprise priorities, such as keeping employees safe and behaving ethically toward customers. Clear thresholds should be put in place for when a local manager needs to ask for authorisation from the centre.

Instead of a clear, hierarchical list of priorities, mediocre leaders set out a buffet of priorities, all of which seem to be equal. It looks something like: “In this time of need, we need to be efficient, effective, innovative, secure, fast, agile and high quality.” The worst situations are where leaders provide unclear and contradictory priorities to their people.

“Hard choices need to be made, never more so than during a crisis. Keep those choices, or priorities, hyperclear”

Disruptions inevitably lead to an overload of sometimes-contradictory information. In the worst cases, employees are being given unclear or incoherent priorities. That is why a crystal-clear set of priorities matters in times of upheaval, but is so hard to achieve.

The reality is that the buffet approach is not helpful. It is like saying, “I want to be a blonde and a brunette and a redhead when I grow up.” Hard choices need to be made, never more so than during a crisis. Keep those choices, or priorities, hyperclear. Then allow for a high degree of decentralised decision making. Respecting and implementing those priorities locally, with the information available at the scene, is essential to be able to respond to emerging events.

No. 2: Pursue a nonbinary approach to problem solving

This is the opposite of what I call the “teenager approach to problem solving,” inspired by the book “Decisive,” by Chip and Dan Heath. Teenagers tend to adopt a binary approach to solving problems. “Should we break up or stay together?” or “I hate you, mum. I love you, mum!” or “I hate school, should I just drop out?”

There are almost always more options besides “do it/do not do it” if teams can be creative about how they solve problems. For example, many leaders will be faced with the decision of whether to fire people and risk losing talent (not to mention further disrupting lives), or keep their people and risk their margins. But what if there were more options?

If you think hard enough about the problem, the options are not limited to “We need to fire people or risk our business.” More options could be considered, such as reducing full-time work to 80% for a portion of the workforce, or exploring early retirement options for some. Getting teams together to be creative and nonbinary about solving the rash of problems that crop up in a crisis can create lasting cohesion, not to mention more productivity and value for stressed-out customers and stakeholders.

No. 3: Be honest, empathetic, clear and simple

Hone a clear, honest, empathetic and simple approach to communication as the COVID-19 situation evolves. This is obvious, I know. Yet I include it because it is so important and also because we live in an era of rapid dissemination of information that is of questionable veracity, from multiple sources.

Be the trusted source. Remember that in any communication plan, it matters less that you communicated something and more that your audience understood it. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, it should not be called a communication plan — it should be called an understanding plan. The emphasis should be on what your listeners take in, especially in a situation that is volatile and unpredictable.

“The 10x10x10 rule applies here: Say something 10 times in 10 different ways for people to retain 10%”

Communicating well includes not being a victim of panic or hype, and laying out clear actions for what to do and when. The 10x10x10 rule applies here: Say something 10 times in 10 different ways for people to retain 10%. You are probably not communicating enough unless you feel like you are going blue in the face repeating the priorities and areas to focus on, as things change and morph.

Based on my anecdotal conversations with many different clients, I think a majority of organisations are doing this pretty well so far. The public sector bears the heaviest burden, as schools, regions and whole countries enter lockdown.

No. 4: Write down the stories

Collect stories of teams coming together to overcome the adversity caused by COVID-19. People are capable of amazing things in a time of crisis. Capture the detail of these stories; do not summarise them too much. So, if Chris and Sandeep from the IT team were up until 5 a.m. in their respective home offices to get that VPN system up and running for hundreds of employees, and between them they drank 17 cups of coffee to get there, include it.

Humans respond to the detail of the story, so capture that. Over the past few days, I have heard of scientists pooling resources and heroically searching for a vaccine; I have heard of hilarious conference calls where both pets and children intervene as teams of people adjust to working from home; I have heard of absolutely heroic IT efforts, as that department rises to the challenge of getting entire companies to work remotely, overnight. These stories matter.

As I said at the beginning, COVID-19 is a humanitarian tragedy that continues to disrupt millions of lives. Good leadership is crucial and there is perhaps one silver lining, which is that this crisis represents an opportunity for leaders to create more team cohesion and innovation in the face of adversity.