Avoid pandemic leadership traps | Sunday Observer

Avoid pandemic leadership traps

2 May, 2021

Here we go again – this time we have experience but how do we better respond.

With the sharp spike in Covid-19 cases after months of declining numbers during which time business regained the lost momentum and were on the way to recovery – in fact some were thriving giving hopes of economic recovery, we are now slapped with another wave with a more dangerous variant. As the health crisis escalates, businesses again fear a return to lockdown and market downturns raising much bigger concerns.  The rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live.

When contending with a crisis such as the ongoing strain of the pandemic, leaders can easily fall into the traps of waiting for the situation to clarify how to act and downplaying the threat in order to reassure people. It turns out that these instincts mean failing the coronavirus leadership test. Passing that test requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognising that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame.

Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis means making oneself available to feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes — to lead with empathy. Perhaps in the coming weeks the unfortunate scale of this pandemic will make empathy easier for many leaders. But an awful scale can also have a numbing effect. It will be incumbent on leaders to put themselves in another’s suffering, to feel with empathy and think with intelligence, and then to use their position of authority to make a path forward for us all. Crises of historical proportion can make for leaders of historical distinction, but that is far from guaranteed.

Leadership fear

When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of  taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer.

But behaving in this manner means failing the corona virus leadership test, because by the time the dimensions of the threat are clear, you are badly behind in trying to control the crisis. Passing that test needs leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognising that mistakes are inevitable and correcting the course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur. It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay. Far too many leaders instead try to send upbeat messages assuring all is well — which, in the current tragedy, has unfortunately led to unnecessary loss of life at a scale that may never be accurately counted.

Act urgently

A well-documented and pernicious problem with any ambiguous threat is the tendency to wait for more information and clarity. The risks of delaying decision-making are often invisible.

But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action is needed is dangerous — particularly in the face of a pandemic with an exponential growth rate, when each additional day of delay contributes even greater devastation than the last.Against the natural tendency toward delay, acting with urgency means leaders jump into the fray without all the information they would dearly like.

Communicating bad news is a thankless task. Leaders who get out ahead risk demoralising employees, customers, or citizens, threatening their popularity. It takes wisdom and some courage to understand that communicating with transparency is a vital antidote to this risk.

Communicating with transparency means providing honest and accurate descriptions of reality — being as clear as humanly possible about what you know, what you anticipate, and what it means for people and the business. It is crucial to convey your message in a way that people can understand. But communication cannot be utterly devoid of hope or people will simply give in to despair.

Somewhere in that communication must be a hopeful vision of the future toward which people can direct their energy, because without hope, resolve is impossible.

Leadership steadiness

An all-too-common misconception of good leadership is that a leader must be steady and unrelenting in staying the course. Certainly, steadiness is required in these times. But given the novelty and rapid evolution of the pandemic, it is wrong to think that the work of the leader is to set a course and stick to it.

Leaders must constantly update their understanding of prior probabilities, even daily, deliberately using strategies to elicit new information and learn rapidly as events unfold and new information comes to light. Employees must be equipped to operate remotely, innovate, and adapt. Companies need talent strategies that focus on digital, cognitive, social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience skills; these are fundamental skills, irrespective of an employee’s role, and companies can consider them a “no-regret” investment.

The new environment poses challenges requiring enhanced problem-solving skills, creativity, and innovation. The increase in remote work requires managers to demonstrate these skills in an increasingly autonomous environment.

What skills will a procurement officer now need to help her company relocate production and rethink the supply chain? Creativity? Innovation? Problem-solving? An ability to manage big projects remotely? For critical employees to use today’s new experiences as a source of learning, they need support to build self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-reliance.