How Strong Leaders Thrive in a Crisis

Updated: Aug 13

The ability to adapt and react is crucial to managing change for leaders who want to succeed when the going gets tough. “From a leadership perspective, there's a change in emphasis in how you need to invest your time during a crisis. It is about having a crisis mindset, as opposed to having a crisis plan in place.”

As Managing Partner of Sterling Development International (SDI), Niall Foster is well aware of the challenges facing organisation leaders through the Covid-19 crisis. Partnered with European Business Schools, SDI has been empowering world-class executives for nearly 25 years.

“As an organisation we had to pivot very quickly,” he says. “We went from a Monday where everyone was in the office delivering face-to-face in classrooms and by the following Monday our team were entirely working remotely, and every single programme that we were delivering is now continuing to be delivered online.”

The ability to react and adapt to unexpected changes is just one of the key qualities needed for a leader, especially in times of crisis. “We are obviously in a very different world now than we were five or six weeks ago,” he says. “From a leadership perspective, there's a change in emphasis in how you need to invest your time during a crisis, because essentially the people you're trying to motivate, engage, and support are looking for different kinds of things from you at different times. It is about having a crisis mindset, as opposed to having a crisis plan in place.”

At the core of a conducive mindset is a focus on communication and the quality of relationships, suggests Foster. “Never was there a time where strength of relationships are more important, because if they are solid now then you are starting a period of crisis from a position of strength. You're looking to connect with your people and understand them far more as human beings. The kind of research that we've done at IMI very much focuses around the leader's mindset, and specifically from a perspective of communication. You need to go from being the day-to-day business leader to becoming like a communications officer and chief,” he says.

New ways of managing

“When people are going through a crisis, they have a high degree of uncertainty, and they have a sense of loss of control, and people suffer in that environment,” Foster stresses. “So the role of the leader becomes about trying to fill that space and help people make sense of what is happening around them. If people can start to feel in a greater sense of control and have more certainty over what they're facing, they're more likely to be able to be effective and focused on their work.”

The one thing that leaders could do most is to be patient and forgiving with themselves and their senior management teams

For many leaders, the communication challenge has been exacerbated by the lack of in-person interactions in the workplace, with teams struggling to replicate the normal flow of communication remotely. “I think you only realise when you're all working remotely just how much day-to-day management and leadership is done on a face-to-face level, in a very intuitive and implicit way,” says Foster.

The reality of working from home brings its own set of problems to navigate, and more people are feeling the drain of a seemingly endless schedule of Zoom meetings.

“There’s an old phrase that describes 'management by walking around', because so much of leadership is based on unconscious social cues. While you are having small interactions at the coffee machine and around the office, you are picking up the mood of the business. That is still really important and it is incumbent upon the leader to now find other ways to pick up those cues when working remotely. It is much harder in a digital context, and it really requires a careful use of your time, so you're not just going through the standing items in your agenda, but you are far more consciously touching base with key people on a one-to-one level on a regular basis.”

The reality of working from home brings its own set of problems to navigate, and more people are feeling the drain of a seemingly endless schedule of Zoom meetings. In this environment it can prove harder to set out a workload that allows space for downtime.

“Leaders often work long hours and put other people’s needs first, and I think it is essential that leaders now pay attention to their own wellbeing,” says Foster. “There was some research done at Harvard Medical School where they surveyed senior executives and found that 96 per cent of the leaders who responded said they felt somewhat burnt out, and 33 per cent described it as extreme. And that was before we had the greatest health crisis in living memory, and the economic crisis that is on the way. The one thing that leaders could do most is to be patient and forgiving with themselves and be particularly patient and forgiving with their own senior management teams. I think taking the time to reflect and managing their diary carefully so they actually get some thinking time, as opposed to the non-stop sense of having to do, is important.”

Workplace wellness

A focus on individual wellness can have a vital positive impact on the entire organisation, suggests Foster. “If the leader is being emotionally intelligent and managing their own emotional reserves carefully, they should be very explicit about that with the people around them because that creates an implicit permission structure for other senior managers, and that follows down through the organisation. The organisation is going to be resilient, manage its energy, and it is going to manage its own emotional reserves well.”

Meanwhile a real effort should be made to promote workplace wellness in terms of agenda and financing throughout the crisis. “The truth is that for many organisations, ‘wellness’ might have looked like a discretionary line in an HR budget, but now it needs to be seen as an absolutely crucial organisational investment,” says Foster. “Wellness needs to be on the daily crisis management team agenda for the senior management team. Certainly for the duration of the health crisis, organisations need to double down their focus on wellness.”

I think it's really important for a leader to recognise the sacrifices that everyone around them are making

While the months ahead contain much uncertainty for leaders across different sectors, there are some universals that apply around planning and decision making. “Leaders need to be very careful around decision making when we're in crisis,” says Foster. “This is the time for scenario planning, and to really connect with your networks and see what conventional wisdom is forming in your industry. When you do decide to respond, the keyword is resolve - that you really express it with decisiveness and confidence.”

“The two most important words for any leader are ‘thank you’,” Foster says. “We are all so busy right now and we are all working crazy hours, when we look back over our careers, we will never forget this period. I think it's really important for a leader to recognise the sacrifices that everyone around them are making, and to remember that we are all in this together, and to really honour that by saying ‘thank you’.”


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