A Steady Hand in the Storm: Leadership in the Corona Crisis
On Sunday Cineworld announced it was temporarily closing all of its cinemas, leaving 45,000 employees around the world anxious about the future of their jobs. The company stated that this decision had not been taken lightly – and for once this may not have simply been a corporate platitude but instead the truth. A recent LinkedIn survey has revealed that more than two-thirds (69%) of executives across Europe have found leading through COVID-19 the most challenging experience of their career. A third have made employees redundant, 40% have asked employees to take a pay cut, and over 60% have put staff on furlough. For a challenge even remotely comparable, corporate leaders have had to hearken back to the 2008 financial crisis, over a decade ago. The government in response has announced £20 million in funding to improve leadership and problem-solving of small business in the wake of Coronavirus.
Naturally at this time, the focus is on the plight of employees as they fear for their job security and future career prospects. Mental health has become a hot talking point as lockdowns and restrictions combine with financial uncertainty to exacerbate underlying mental health conditions as well as causing skyrocketing rates of depression. Yet for business leaders trying to make the right call in uncharted waters with hundreds, sometimes thousands of jobs on the line, stress is taking its toll as well. Nearly three quarters have struggled with not having all the answers, while 52% have doubted their ability to lead. Unsurprisingly, over half also say the situation has negatively impacted their mental health.
The current crisis has fundamentally challenged leaders to rethink their leadership style and to value adaptability as well as to work on their soft skills such as compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Many have struggled with the transition from face-to-face to virtual management. Nearly a third have sought external help from coaches or online courses to improve their leadership. Reassurance and clear communication have become essential tools of leadership in what is an unpredictable, confusing, and concerning time for all. However, for all the stress and tribulation of the pandemic, it has also presented opportunity. The Coronavirus has allowed leaders and employees to break down traditional barriers and work more closely together.
In an era of Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls where living rooms, children and pets are on display in an increasingly informal atmosphere, the manager/managed distinction has become a lot less sharp. And rightfully so, as this is a time to be honest and open with employees and to bring them into the fold as part of the on-going response to the crisis. It has been noted by US based management consultants McKinsey & Company, that organisations should not attempt to run a top down approach to Coronavirus, but rather should seek to build a network of teams. This makes sense as employees are now categorised not by hierarchical concerns, but rather factors such as whether they can work from home or whether they can return to their place of work in a risk minimised environment.
This shift in thinking has led many to announce that the classic model of leadership is over, another casualty as we move towards the much vaunted new normal. New terms are entering the leadership vocabulary such as creating a ‘speak-up’ culture where employees can contribute ideas and discuss ethical solutions freely. This is coupled with a new respect for ‘mindfulness’ and compassionate leadership. The age of the big I, the all-knowing decisive individual leader in the corporate setting has perhaps come to an end. Coronavirus has illustrated that no one is immune either to the disease itself or to the restrictions and complications it has imposed on our everyday life.
The virus has also shown that both short-term and long-term planning are equally important. Many firms that made the wrong call at the start of the pandemic, either by jettisoning workers or downplaying the potential dangers of the infection have permanently tarnished their brand. Equally, normalcy bias tends to make leaders think that crises will be short-term and to underestimate their potential impact. It is thus vital to rethink long term contingency planning and short-term acute responses in order to react to future developments of the pandemic; as well as to prepare for changes in the wider business landscape which is likely to be buffeted by further shocks such as Brexit.
In conclusion, the stresses facing employees are mirrored and amplified in those tasked with navigating the turbulent waters of this crisis. While several reports have stated that it has never been lonelier at the top, it is important for leaders to realise they are not alone. All those leading in politics, business, science and beyond have been thrust into the unknown, together. Likewise, employees are faced with the same predicaments and should be seen as a resource to draw upon as we collectively work our way through these trying times, together. To survive and thrive, leaders will need to be more transparent, more understanding, and more open to suggestion than ever before. The sea change in thinking Coronavirus has brought about may prove in the end, to be a positive one.