Coronavirus – a litmus test for leadership

17th April by Lee Robertson

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Coronavirus - a litmus test for leadership

In a time of unprecedented uncertainty as world leaders deal with the intricacy of how to best manage the situation for the welfare of the people they represent, there are some wonderful examples of good leadership coming to the fore.

None of us are immune to the economic, societal or technological changes that are going on around us and our politicians, leaders and managers are facing intense complexity. Their qualities and capabilities are being challenged in completely new ways and the extreme pressures they are being asked to tackle mean they are time-poor, prone to stress and burnout and might even lack the confidence they need to lead or manage others effectively at such a challenging time.

This era is demonstrating that our leaders need to remove fear and lead with assertion if we are to weather this and future events. There is little room to be risk adverse with disruption and concurrent challenges becoming the norm and there are valuable lessons we can learn to help make our organisations more resilient.

While some tactics have been attacked by the press for being slow, there are many examples of strong leadership being reported too. In the States, the Lummi nation, a sovereign Native America tribe in the north west, has been ahead of the curve preparing since the virus first appeared. The tribal leaders have been reorganising services, gathering vital medical supplies and are set to open a pioneering field hospital to treat patients. In Europe, many states are working together to co-ordinate action with border closures and establishing fast-track lanes at their countries’ frontiers to keep medicines and goods moving. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mooted a collective approach by putting differences with Pakistan to one side and inviting his fellow SAARC nations to put together a strategy to combat the disease in the region.

In business, many companies are taking responsible steps to keep the public reassured and informed of how their services will be affected. Leaders like Deliveroo’s Will Shu have put the customer first by enabling them to order kitchen and other household products from supermarkets in addition to food from restaurants and takeaways. The Louis Vuitton owner LVMH is making hand sanitisers for hospitals in France while BrewDog is taking a similar approach here. Meanwhile, Iceland and Sainsbury's have introduced special shopping hours for older customers to get provisions, while most organisations have reviewed their remote working policies to allow their people to work from home wherever possible. Many smaller organisations are also pulling their communities together and getting help and supplies to the most vulnerable.

Good leadership and management stems beyond employee attrition rates and the bottom line. It’s about prioritising the needs of staff and customers. Today’s fast developments where the world works on a global footing are confirming that we have the responsibility to give our leaders and managers the tools they need to respond effectively and quickly to uncertainty and adversity.

Collective resilience is a fundamental skill more in need than ever before and leadership capabilities can only be extended if they truly reflect modern contexts. As voters we are interrogating the government’s strategy on dealing with this pandemic and in business, our workforce has the same right to expect their employers be able to adapt quickly and take actions that our right for our people. 

In critiquing the ways our senior leaders perform and behave, we have to accept that our models of leadership and management must adapt. Good leadership as we have seen needs to be flexible, collaborative and keep pace with the ever-changing business environment and acknowledge the unknown. We must be inclusive of our employees and customers and show compassionate and capable leadership which is rooted in being strong and authentic.

The leader’s role is to serve and empower employees. Investing in continuous learning for our employees is important and we must train, coach and mentor our workforces so they are prepared for and confident to deal with change at any given time. At the same time, employees need to have trust in their leaders to take the risk, adapt to change, suggest outside of the box ideas and as a collective workforce – make things happen.

In times of crisis we don’t need leaders with a domineering approach, but those with who use their human skills to the best of their ability by instilling confidence, who are dynamic, responsive to change and proactive in listening to industry or stakeholder needs. Focus, compassion, strength of character, inclusion and a secure sense of self are all hallmarks of leaders with purpose and should be part of the leader’s DNA.

We may not be able to avoid crises like the one we are living through now, but there is proof that by working together to take sensible and effective steps, we can build resilient businesses, teams and employees who will be better placed to cope with the unknown.