The next 24 hours of leadership

Milo-Arne Wilkinson | Program Director and Curator

In today's world of enforced change and isolation, effective crisis leadership demands transparency, empathy, and consistent communication, empowering teams to navigate uncertainty.

Being totally used to working from home and having flexibility isn’t the new normal – we’ve moved to a world (albeit temporarily) where it’s being enforced, so the freedom to choose a day here or there is already eroded – even your habit of working from the local café may be eroded. Our ability to physically socialise, exercise and go about our usual routine has now been thrown out the window. We have to quickly establish a new state of normal and it won’t be easy.

But the biggest challenges will be for leaders.

The reality for all of us is words determine how the brain interprets the world – and then we apportion our emotions to those words. For example, we’re currently in self-isolation and the words we can attribute are things like: enforced separation, physical confinement, withdrawal, quarantine, loss, social distance, etc. In the reality of cognitive behaviour, words shape your emotions and then shape your behaviour, so leadership has to seem certain, connected, hopeful and understanding. It’s time to lead in a crisis.

The truth is, some of us are great process leaders and some of us are fantastic ‘business as usual’ leaders, but we aren’t all natural-born crisis leaders. Crisis leadership takes a whole different set of skills to manage a remote workforce and an uncertain workforce, so who you are and how you lead will need to fundamentally shift.

At senior levels of leadership, a recent survey (prior to COVID-19) undertaken by ELEVEN, a leadership course based on behaviour change, noted more than 82% of C-suite leaders felt lonely in their positions and the decisions they had to make. The cause of these feelings was a mix of trust, privilege, command and control, isolation of position, competency, and a need for dominance or imposter syndrome (i.e. waiting to be discovered as potentially incompetent). Now add to that an added complexity which is very real today, leadership isolation.

It’s important now more than ever leaders are prepared to show uncertainty and vulnerability because it will only improve their credibility. People are longing for that positive message, but we’ll not believe the positive messages if the leader isn’t transparent about the negative parts as well. People want a leader to project compassion and an understanding of how the situation is for those concerned, and to project the hope together we can manage the crisis, even though we don’t know everything about the present situation.

Crisis leaders leading in isolation can experience the following adverse effects:

  1. Our behaviour can appear inconsistent
  2. Our decisions become inconsistent
  3. We start to feel alone
  4. Detached feelings from all people (family, friends and employees)
  5. Can affect the memory

For some, crisis leadership needs to be learned rather than pushed aside like an unwanted agenda item within the climate of today.

Political scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Arjen Boin, has studied the most successful and unsuccessful responses during previous emergencies. In his research into crises like the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and Hurricane Katrina, Boin has identified many of the steps necessary for an effective leadership response:

  1. Leaders should, for instance, offer a rapid recognition of the danger by acknowledging how the world looks and the fear it invokes, and do what you can collectively to make sense of the situation as frequently as twice per day. When physicians working the front line were able to express their fears and emotions, they recorded a 63% decrease in their anxiety just by creating a space to express it. Remember, your words will attach emotions to them and ‘letting those words go’ is just as powerful.
  2. There is also the tendency to sugar-coat the situation. Although it’s commonly believed the public will panic in times of emergency, there’s little empirical evidence to back this up (not even a rush for toilet paper falls within this category). For this reason, leaders should be open about the evolving nature of the problem, avoiding a paternalistic sense of children that need to be shielded from bad news. Instead treat your teams as adults who are going to make a long-term effort. You want to be honest with your teams and be real about the uncertainty that exists.
  3. In the heat of the moment, many leaders still don’t appreciate just how important the messaging can be during times of crisis, particularly regarding consistency and openness. I think leaders sometimes underestimate the effect of their own words, especially the (effects of) things they don’t say as well as the things they do say. Say it all. Your leadership will be defined by what you do say, not what you hold back.
  4. Appeal to collective values and a collective history, emphasising the organisation at large rather than individual self-interest. For example, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s handling of the 9/11 attacks is a prime example of excellent crisis management in the past. Giuliani appealed to New Yorkers’ collective pride, for example, by repeatedly asking them to set an example for the rest of the U.S. The result of his memorable and continued efforts to acknowledge their grief and raise morale were met with widespread approval that continued long after the event. Start with their grief and then appeal to the organisation’s history, the brand, the pride you all feel, the values, and the fact you can handle a crisis – you’ve been training for it for years. Empower them – they’ve got this … and we know it’s scary, but there’s no better team!

In the climate we find ourselves in and the uncertain future we face, the shape of leadership is fundamentally different. ELEVEN can help you navigate the reality of your environment and ensure you’re ready to respond empathetically, unemotionally and appropriately.

People want a leader to project compassion and an understanding of how the situation is for those concerned, and to project the hope together we can manage the crisis, even though we don’t know everything about the present situation.