Leadership in a crisis

To read this summary in Myanmar language, click here.

As part of our initiative, Trustworthy: Leading With Your Heart and Mind, we are recommending this article by McKinsey & Company, “Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges,” which provides practical steps for leaders amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. McKinsey & Company (McKinsey) is a global leader in change management consulting across many industries.

In a global crisis like COVID-19, leaders “cannot respond as they would in a routine emergency.” Below are five important behaviors and mindsets for leaders during this time of crisis:

  1. Organize a network of teams to respond to crises

During times of great uncertainty, leaders “face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood.” The crisis response should be delegated to networks of teams at various levels of the organization. They define a network of teams as “a highly adaptable assembly of groups, which…work together in much the same way that the individuals on a single team collaborate.”

McKinsey provides a very helpful graphic to visually represent the concept of a network of teams. To access the graphic, view the full article online.

In a crisis, it may be a leader’s natural reaction or instinct to try and take all control and authority. However, it is important to model openness, or transparency, and collaboration across the network of teams. A leader should also promote openness among the network of teams to “discuss ideas, questions, and concerns” without fear of getting in trouble with their supervisors. This is especially true in emotional and tense environments that crises bring.

  1. Elevate the right leaders and maintain a posture of ‘deliberate calm’ and ‘bounded optimism’

Operating within uncertainty involves great risk and decision-makers are likely to make mistakes.  Senior leadership must promote staff who are “able to learn quickly and make corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the organization.”

While traditionally, experience is the most valuable quality that leaders bring to routine emergencies, it is character that is of the highest value when it comes to complex and unexpected crises, like that of the coronavirus pandemic.

These individuals have the ability to maintain a ‘deliberate calm’ and to think clearly in the middle of complex and changing situations. They acknowledge the complexity and challenge of the situation and show “confidence that the organization will find a way through its tough situation.”

  1. When making decisions, “pause to assess and anticipate, then act”

Crisis situations change rapidly and action is needed. In a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, facts are often delayed or unclear at the time when decisions need to be made. Leaders need to resist waiting until a time when there is a full set of facts before acting. This time may come too late.  Even while not having all of the facts, leaders can act by “continually collecting information as the crisis unfolds and observing how well their responses work.”

Leaders must model two behaviors: updating and doubting. Updating means changing ideas based on “new information teams collect.” Doubting means leaders think critically about potential decisions and then decide if those plans should be changed or discarded. According to McKinsey, updating and doubting can help leaders weigh solutions that worked in the past and new solutions that may be superior.

Then, leaders must act resolutely. This builds the “organization’s confidence in leaders.”

  1. Show empathy to employees who are dealing with tragedy and disruption

In a crisis of massive scale, people turn to survival and basic questions – “Will I be sickened or hurt? Will my family? What happens then? Who will care for us?” Leaders must recognize that their employees are undergoing immense personal and professional challenges. Leaders must pay attention to the ways that this crisis affects their employees, and support them as best they can.

It is important that leaders show empathy to their employees while also opening themselves up to empathy from others. This means leaders need to pay attention to their own well-being, too.

According to McKinsey, “As stress, fatigue, and uncertainty build up during a crisis, leaders might find that their abilities to process information, to remain levelheaded, and to exercise good judgment diminish.” Leaders need to take time for their own well-being and encourage others to express concern and empathy. This will help them remain effective in the weeks and months ahead.

  1. Communicate frequently and with transparency

Leaders must neither be too overly confident or optimistic or go silent for long periods of time while waiting for “more facts to emerge and decisions to be made.” Each of these approaches can raise suspicion and distrust among employees.

The article references Amy Edmondson, who says, ‘Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.’ This “thoughtful, frequent communication shows that leaders are following the situation” and changing their responses as more facts are known.

To read the full article, click here.

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About DeBoer Fellowship

The DeBoer Fellowship develops change leaders across all sectors of Myanmar society. Through a multi-year training class and additional public programs, the DeBoer Fellowship serves Myanmar by helping to grow competent, compassionate, and ethical leaders. For more information about DeBoer Fellowship or to apply for the Fellowship, please visit: www.deboerfellowship.org.

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