COVID-19: A Leadership Proving Ground?

As companies adapt to remote workforces and customers with new needs and concerns, some managers will shine and others will falter. If your company, like many, has a high-potentials and leadership development programs, it’s worth watching and assessing how each manager and executive responds to the COVID-19 crisis.

A recent Forbes column by leadership strategy consultant Glenn Llopis highlights “6 Leadership Principles to Guide You During Crisis.” Each of these principles can be used as points against which you can assess managers:

  • The inspiration to see opportunities in everything
  • The flexibility to anticipate the unexpected
  • The freedom to unleash our passionate pursuits
  • The room to live with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • The trust to work with a generous purpose
  • The respect to lead to leave a legacy

The most important characteristic of leadership during times of crisis, from my own observations, is the openness and flexibility to deviate from routine process. For example, if managers ordinarily expect employees to go through a long checklist of approvals to set an idea into action, they would streamline that process during the crisis. When there is no time to wait to give customers what they need, the approval process for setting ideas into motion has to be reduced to as few stopping points as possible.

At the same time, a good manager in a crisis is able to balance streamlined processes with quality control. These managers are able to temporarily take on more responsibility for decisions that are made, personally overseeing what in other times they would have delegated. With fewer people approving ideas for new products and services, the manager has to step in and fill the void of those people who have been taken out of the process. The manager has greater responsibility to carefully (and speedily) evaluate each new idea.

Managers also need the flexibility and openness to act on ideas that are not their own. A crisis is a time to draw on the wisdom of the whole department—or even the whole company. That means being open to bottom-to-top ideas that may come from mid-level, or even entry-level, employees. To ensure the best ideas win, a manager asking for input from employees could devise a way to evaluate the ideas without knowing who they come from. They could set up a Webpage using a common, easy-to-use platform like Wordpress, to pose challenges to employees and get ideas posted without knowing who submitted them.

Sensitivity to the emotional needs of employees also is essential. In a crisis like the one we’re in, many employees have significant anxiety. They are anxious about preserving their health and keeping their job. Who wouldn’t be anxious with the news filled with stories of death, job loss, and economic despair? Communicating more often than usual with employees can offset some of their anxieties. You can start by helping put into context the information they are being inundated with: “As frightening as the high numbers of serious cases and deaths associated with this virus are, remember that the most common scenario is for people to have mild symptoms in which they don’t feel well for a couple of weeks and then get better. Most people do NOT require hospitalization and even fewer die from the virus. Be careful and practice ‘social distancing’ and good hygiene, but don’t be afraid. The greatest likelihood is you will recover from the virus should you contract it.”

Once you have provided them with a much-needed reality check about the true level of danger they are in, offer honest information about the performance of the company during the crisis: “We have lost revenue due to events we had to cancel that we had been counting on for revenue growth, but we are still in a strong position. At this point, I don’t foresee the need for job cuts or reduction of hours or pay. I will let you know as soon as I have information to the contrary. In the meantime, feel good that we are on secure footing and that we all have jobs.”

Good leaders can ease anxieties by keeping a light tone in virtual meetings. Instead of appearing like people under siege with jaws clenched, managers with strong leadership skills communicate a feeling of ease and security. These managers are organized and clear in the delivery of information and direction, but don’t affect an unnecessarily melodramatic or stern tone.

Great leaders help employees keep the information they are inundated with in perspective, so they are able to keep calm and focus on being practical, so both they and their customers are well cared for.

Do you have stories of great leadership among your managers and executives you would like to share?

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