From a leadership perspective, the big difference between a crisis event like 9/11 and the current Covid-19 scenario is that with the former there is an obvious and immediate need for somebody to assert 100% control. Events such as 9/11 are immediate, ‘in the moment’ events.
Choose the right moment
In situations like this it’s important to choose the right moment to assert big control, particularly where on-going ambiguity and uncertainty are going to prevail.
Conversely, the Covid-19 crisis has built comparatively slowly with a rate of growth that has been exponential. In situations like this it’s important to choose the right moment to assert big control, particularly where on-going ambiguity and uncertainty are going to prevail. And as world leaders have proven, that precise moment is extremely difficult to identify.
It helps to think about this through our urgency spectrum.
The way in which you lead in each phase of the spectrum is quite different.
In the extreme case of an explosion or fire, you’re at the far right hand of the spectrum as a leader. Note that in this situation, the role of leader may not necessarily be defined by the traditional hierarchy.
The leader will emerge as the person who is crystal clear about what they need people to do and their expectation that people will just do it.
At this point in time, people will follow those who exert big control - the person who is directive and clear and says ‘come this way’ or ‘don’t go that way’ or ‘don’t use the lift’. There is no room for inclusion or openness – there’s just no time for discussions around ‘which door should we take?’. The leader will emerge as the person who is crystal clear about what they need people to do and their expectation that people will just do it.
If, in the aftermath of an event like this a leader continues to behave in the same very controlling way then the impact will be very different. Once the situation has moved from Crisis back down through the spectrum then leaders need to ensure that people feel included in decision making in order for them to be committed to the decision. If the person who was leading in Crisis fails to start including people once the immediate crisis has passed, then they will lose credibility and no longer be trusted to lead.
Once the crisis has passed, leaders need to reflect, review and recharge with the team to top up this ‘emotional bank account’.
As the situation evolves, leaders shifting to a more open and inclusive style of leadership, is what’s needed when at the Equilibrium end of spectrum. Including others in information and decision making when the pressure is off, demonstrates an openness and shared accountability that is an investment in the building of trust and commitment. This means that in times of crisis, when they need to assert absolute control, trust is high and people are less likely to question. Once the crisis has passed, leaders need to reflect, review and recharge with the team to top up this ‘emotional bank account’.
People are more likely to trust leaders whose behaviour is consistent and congruent with a set of sound core values.
The ‘Who I am’ elements of our resilient leadership model come to the fore here, notably Leadership Presence: What you leave behind you when you’re not in the room because of who you are when you are in the room Authenticity is a facet of Leadership Presence and is critical in building trust. People are more likely to trust leaders whose behaviour is consistent and congruent with a set of sound core values. At times of ambiguity and uncertainty, it is vital that the individual who is conveying the messages is trusted. Leaders will only be trusted if they are authentic.
Showing vulnerability is also a way of demonstrating authenticity. Resilient Leaders can be honest about their vulnerability without falling apart because they have coping mechanisms to help rebalance themselves and those around them.
Support and trust
Dealing with Covid-19 requires leadership more akin to that in war-time than that needed in response to immediate events such as 9/11. We’re in this for the long haul and strong relationships built when the urgency is low are needed to withstand the uncertainty and pressures exerted over time. Leaders need to tread a fine line between asserting absolute control and ensuring inclusion and openness.
Jacinda Ardern dealt with the tragic shooting in New Zealand with a balance of vulnerability and absolute control. She was consistently caring and authoritative even before Covid 19. All of this has meant she has huge support and trust from the populace such that the New Zealand story of Covid 19 is likely to be a far better one than that of other nations where leaders seem unaware and incapable of vulnerability.
Only time will tell how long our political leaders can manage to tread the line and whether or not it will result in a positive outcome for us all.
Meanwhile, we hope that we’ve given a taste of some of the resilient leadership elements that might help those of you who are leading others through this uncertain time. We’re offering a number of free and discounted resources to help you right now and hope you’ll find time to take advantage of them.