Leadership During Crisis (and After): It’s Not the Same

Image credit: TeamGantt

As Dr. Martin Luther King once said,

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

What is required for effective leadership has been evolving significantly over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, leadership competencies and development have not kept pace. As a result, many organizations, and particularly educational institutions, operate with inadequate and, at times, even detrimental leadership. If we layer a major crisis over the top of the existing challenges faced by leaders every day, the gap between what is needed and what exists grows even larger. Two industries where leadership failures have been most pronounced are retail and higher education, both of which have failed to respond effectively to disruptive change, with many thousands of businesses and colleges closing as a result.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown challenges at all industries that represent a once in a lifetime crisis, but for some, such as higher education, many institutions entered the pandemic in a weakened state, ill prepared to handle the organizational, technological, and financial demands posed by the current catastrophe. Moreover, COVID-19 came at a time of growing social unrest and a demographic sea change in the workforce, with millennials now being the largest group overall and even younger workforce populations growing fast. The “boomer” generation is fading in the workplace and we are now seeing a “bottoms up” influence from employees who have very clear demands (and passion) for what they want to be true in their organizations. As noted in AXIOS AM, “The judgment CEOs feared most in the past was pesky reporters or regulators. The judgment they should fear the most now is idealistic employees on the inside, and the social media warriors on the outside.” As Axios CEO Jim VandeHei comments, “Any CEO who ignores this bottom-up revolution will suffer public backlash, recruitment and retention challenges, and fits of internal turmoil.”

What are the requirements of leadership in a crisis and the “next” normal and how are they different from more typical times?

First, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for leadership characteristics that were becoming more important even before the pandemic. For example, emotional intelligence and people skills were becoming essential to effective leadership over at least the last couple decades. In the face of existential crisis and deep social change, those competencies are even more critical. Likewise, the ability to navigate ambiguous, complex and even volatile environments was growing in value many years before the novel coronavirus came on the scene.

The Trifurcated Leader

Trifurcated Leader

Relatedly, leaders during crisis must meet the daily requirements of running the business, whatever it is, plus managing the crisis, while also identifying transformational opportunities for the post-crisis new normal—which requires operating across at least three domains simultaneously. It’s what I call the “trifurcated leader. Unfortunately, as noted in a recent HBR article, during crisis, it is typical to over-manage and under-lead, resulting in asymmetry from leaders in both effort and outcomes.

Employee Needs

As shown in the trifurcated model, one of the biggest differences between leading in a crisis vs. “normal” times is the responsibility to meet the emotional needs of people in the organization. Interestingly, international research by Gallup found that what matters most to employees in a time of crisis is that their leaders build trust, show compassion, support stability and provide hope. And they don’t expect leaders to be bullet proof or “perfect,” but they do expect them to be competent, prepared, empathetic, and have conviction about the path forward. One of the greatest challenges for traditional leaders now is that they are also expected to care about and support a purpose as much as the bottom line. If leaders want to have legitimacy they will have to authentically grasp and articulate the moral imperatives related to their roles.

An irony of leadership during crisis is that if often requires a more directive approach than might be normally taken, but execution depends more on others. Relatedly, a leader’s communication skills grow in importance during crisis. The stakes are higher and the environment makes effective communication more difficult!

Importantly, crisis also puts extreme pressure on leaders themselves. As a result, a leader’s own resilience and wellbeing come into play in times of crisis as well. Leaders with self-compassion who are good at self-care are much better prepared to succeed in the face of crisis, because they are more likely to maintain their focus and abilities despite what can seem like overwhelming challenges.

Lastly, leaders who can be vulnerable and authentic in times of crisis and social upheaval tend to be better positioned for success because they are amenable to risk, communicate transparently, tend to be trusted by their followers, and have the courage to make difficult decisions even with limited or even contradictory data. While these traits support effective leadership in all contexts, they are particularly powerful when the people in organizations are feeling increased levels of stress and distress. Moreover, Millenials and Gen Xers have very well-developed crap detectors and are much less subservient than boomers were. The AXIOS Am post quoted above also pointedly notes that, “CEOs are often more cautious and contrived than politicians when it comes to tough staff-wide conversations about race, LGBTQ issues, idealism or topics beyond business performance.” That will no longer fly in organizations in which the traditional power dynamics have shifted and employees care about their ideals as much (or more) than their paycheck.

Unfortunately, many organizations are currently being led by individuals who simply don’t have the knowledge, skills, abilities and traits to effectively lead today or in the coming “next” normal. For those entities that survive, many will need to upgrade leadership to ensure growth and sustainability going forward.

Footnote

The worst leadership profile during crisis is the narcissist. Whether we are talking about a department, division, organization, municipality, state or even nation, narcissistic leaders are deadly during crisis because their focus on self-aggrandizement and their incapacity for empathy come at the expense of focus on the crisis and the wellbeing of the people depending on them.

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