In summary, you need to stay calm, build your emotional resilience, adopt a common sense attitude, be optimistic, be useful – and remember, that this too soon shall pass.
1. Stay Calm
Strong leadership in a crisis is about staying very calm. Reduce your fear levels and the fear of those around you, using your emotional intelligence to manage your thoughts. Replace fear-led pessimistic thoughts with optimism, and soothe yourself and others that this is a temporary phase of months not years – and can be managed accordingly. Fear is also an unhealthy virus and can spread and escalate into panic and unhelpful behaviours when left unchecked. The main reason why staying calm is so important for you as a leader is because fear paralyses the mind, and stops your brain for finding sensible solutions to matters at hand. At a very practical level, fear will reduce the immune system, so is of no benefit to you or anyone anxious about the coronavirus.
2. Use an inspiring motto
People look to their leaders for the answer when they do not know what to do. Be the one who inspires others to cope and carry on. American presidents have particularly good track record on using inspiring mottos for reassurance and to promote emotional health. For example, Roosevelt’s ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself’ later echoed by JFK in his inaugural presidential speech. The British wartime motto of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is also a tried and tested motto to hang onto in times when it is necessary to build up inner resolve and resilience in the face of a long period of crisis and challenge. Right now we see pictures of the Italians putting flags on their balconies with a slogan of reassurance for each other “Andrà tutto bene” – everything will be all right”.
3. Step back to see the bigger picture
This crisis is temporary and will not go on forever. The reality is that most people will be fine – according to WHO about 80% of patients experience only mild illness. Remind yourself and others that humans are a very adaptable species and we will find solutions and we will get through. The virus is very contagious but it is not very aggressive. Most people will recover. In the meantime we are forced to slow down and reflect on what really matters in our work and in our life. Our minds will become clearer over time, and the new normal will encompass a genuine appreciation of our vulnerability, our need to unify, and the importance of our neighbours and community and teams.
As a leader you can help unify efforts and support the shift from an individual focus to a more collaborative approach and solutions. In seeing the bigger picture, we must also remember to have humility and respect for nature and the planet we live on
4. Set clear priorities and stay in the moment
With the bigger picture in mind, and knowing that this is a temporary phase, leaders should use sound judgement to set priorities and plan in a common sense way. Plan for the most probable or likely happenings. Preparing for ‘worst case’ scenarios is unhelpful and fear-driven as ‘worst’ can spiral way out in its definition and add unhelpfully to the overwhelming feeling of not being in control. When setting priorities in a crisis, always bring yourself back to this present moment, and act according to what would be useful to do in your leadership role right now in this moment. Don’t let your mind spiral into negative thoughts or too many ‘what ifs’. We have what the Buddhist call ‘monkey minds’ which means we have undisciplined minds that have a tendency to spin out into all sorts of scenarios, and can be fuelled by creative imagination, fear and panic. The Buddhists have always advised us on the need to tame our monkey minds and stay in the moment.
5. Organise a network of rapid response teams and decentralise decision-making
Set up a network of crisis response teams, led by emotionally intelligent, resilient people, ideally with crisis management experience. It is not that long ago when businesses had to respond to a sudden global economic recession – and I can see already that leaders are tapping into that inbuilt resilience and reflecting back on the lessons learned; what worked well and deploying tactics accordingly. Give clear direction to your teams on the key priorities but in a crisis, decentralise decisions-making and empower local teams to respond on to deliver on those key priorities as they see appropriate, whilst still staying accountable to big picture purpose and values of the organisation.
6. Bond with your customers
Let your customers know that you and your teams may be working from home/remote from the office – but you remain committed to excellent customer service. Explain that we are all in this together – you, your teams and your customers – and we will all come through this together. There is nothing more bonding than working together in the trenches on a difficult problem, and coming up with solutions together. It is an opportunity to show your customers what you are made of, and how genuine your commitment to serving their needs. They will appreciate it, and when all this is over, they will remember that you were there for them when they needed you most. Governments are setting up new loan schemes, banks are offering mortgage holidays – what can your business creatively set up to support your customers in the next few months?
7. Communicate regularly, and often Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Never cancel any planned communications events. Even when if there is nothing new to share, stick with the session to let people know that there is nothing new to communicate yet. Take the opportunity to be encouraging and explain that plans are in place to continue working on solutions and that you will keep them informed on progress at the next planned session. In a crisis, people want more reassurance and more information than usual. Don’t hole up in central HQ behind locked doors, offering information on only a ‘need to know’ basis. Instead be more transparent than usual, communicate more than usual, have more two-way communication than usual. Avail of all the technologies and social media to reach your teams and employee audience with messages of reassurance and clear priorities.
8. Accept how things are, manage expectations but be optimistic
Yes, we are faced with a situation we don’t want or enjoy. Yes, there is isolation, social distancing, sickness and concern about the death of loved ones who might be vulnerable. Yes, this is how it is. Accept it. Acknowledge it. Try not to be angry about it. Once you accept the situation, then your mind can focus on doing something creative and useful to organise, plan, manage, support and control. Being optimistic helps you to stay resilient. Keep a healthy perspective and don’t catastrophize. Focusing on your leadership tasks will help you to stay calm, motivated and in control. Make decisions with the information at hand. Be agile and ready to change decisions as and when it is necessary.
9. Have empathy for yourself as well as empathy for others
Be aware and alert to the behaviour of your bosses, peers, employees and your customers. Observe how are they coping and think about their needs, and how can you respond with empathy. Pause to step into their shoes, to feel how they are feeling. Acknowledge what your employees and their loved ones are going through. Also have empathy for yourself and take care of your own well-being. Enough rest, sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise are very important. If possible, now is the time for business leaders to show leadership in the community as well. How could you use your skills to support your local neighbourhood? For example, a technology firm could offer local schools free technology services such as video conferencing to support online education for those not attending school in person.
10. Empower yourself
Finally – and most importantly – empower yourself to lead. You don’t need permission or a great title to be a great leader. You don’t need to be the CEO to be the one with the best idea on how to solve a problem big or small. Adversity tests us to be the best version of ourselves. Empower yourself to shine, to be resourceful, to be the one to make a difference – to role model to others how to stay calm, how to set clear priorities, how to communicate, how bond with customers, how to show empathy for yourself and others. Empower yourself and empower others to step up and be the ones to lead those people who need more guidance now than ever before.
By Niamh O’Keeffe, corporate leadership advisor and author of ‘Future Shaper: how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world’ (published 2020) firstname.lastname@example.org