Leading the way in a pandemic

Leading a complex organisation is difficult enough in ‘ordinary’ circumstances, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up all kinds of new challenges for leaders, at a time when everyone is looking to them for answers. How might leaders create a ‘point of certainty’ in uncertain times?

Predictably unpredictable

It’s no exaggeration to say that the current pandemic has caused unprecedented levels of disruption to our ways of working and living – to say nothing of the enormous human and economic toll. The lack of a roadmap makes this crisis particularly challenging – governments, organisations and communities are responding day-to-day, working with limited information which is always changing.

This unpredictability can be particularly uncomfortable for leaders who are used to working to a strategic plan; as the Harvard Business Review points out, such crises have historically been ‘make or break’ moments for leaders.

So what can we learn – from research and from example – about the key elements of successful leadership in a crisis?

Calm

Perhaps the most challenging task facing leaders is to project calm in the face of chaos and uncertainty. In a crisis, communities look to leaders for guidance and reassurance, and while a leader may not be able to provide all the answers, it is crucial to provide a sense of direction and resolve.

This ‘direction-giving’ is a common element in leadership communication theory; however, as Suze Wilson notes in The Conversation, leaders cannot rely solely on this approach if they want to successfully lead communities through upheaval.

Clarity

Citing Ronald Heifetz’s work on leadership in the midst of uncertainty, Wilson notes that a clear message from leaders becomes even more important during crisis situations. She gives the example of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic, and particularly her use of a simple and transparent decision-making framework.

By clearly communicating the possible scenarios and actions the government would take in those circumstances, she provided citizens with clarity as to what might lie ahead, as well as an understanding of why particular decisions would be made. This transparency enhances trust and a sense of certainty, despite the constantly evolving circumstances.

Compassion

While it may seem obvious, the expression of empathy and compassion is particularly important during a crisis; yet, as Wilson points out, many leaders struggle to do this effectively, perhaps feeling that it may undermine the projection of strength and reassurance.

However, as we see with Ardern, when a leader articulates and acknowledges the fear and anxiety of the broader community, this can enhance a sense of psychological safety. Ardern also acted directly to address this anxiety, creating an open forum to speak directly to citizens and answer their questions. By recognising emotional responses, leaders can speak directly to them, and provide reassurance that they understand the lived experiences of those in their community.

Communication in a crisis

As we all live through the pandemic, it has become evident that calm, clear and compassionate communication from leaders is more important than ever. We can draw on these lessons from successful crisis leadership to better understand how we might lead our communities through this crisis with both strength and empathy.