How to lead in the global pandemic crisis

A person leading a group on a walk

Words by Niamh O’Keeffe

As we adapt to these challenging times, corporate leadership advisor and Conduit member Niamh O’Keeffe shares her ten top tips for steering your organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Stay Calm

Strong leadership in a crisis is about staying very calm. Reduce your fear levels – and thus the fear levels of those around you – by using your emotional intelligence to manage your thoughts. Replace fear-led pessimistic thoughts with optimism, and soothe yourself and others that this is a temporary phase and can be managed accordingly. Fear is also an unhealthy virus and can spread and escalate into panic and unhelpful behaviours when left unchecked. As a leader, it’s vital to stay calm because fear paralyses the mind and prevents your brain from finding sensible solutions to matters at hand. Finally, at a practical level, fear will weaken the immune system, so is of no benefit to you or anyone anxious about the coronavirus.

2. Use an inspiring motto

People look to their leaders for the answer when they don’t know what to do. Be the one who inspires others to cope and carry on. American presidents have a particularly good track record of using inspiring mottos for reassurance and to promote emotional health. For example, Roosevelt’s iconic phrase, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’, was later echoed by JFK in his inaugural presidential speech. The British wartime motto of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is also a tried and tested motto to hang onto in times when it is necessary to build up inner resolve and resilience in the face of a long period of crisis and challenge. Right now, you only have to go onto social media to see photos of Italians putting flags on their balconies with a slogan of reassurance for each other: “Andrà tutto bene” – “Everything will be all right”.

3. Step back to see the bigger picture

This crisis is temporary and will not go on forever. The reality is that most people will be fine – according to WHO about 80% of patients experience only mild illness. Remind yourself and others that humans are a very adaptable species and we will find solutions. The virus is very contagious but it is not very aggressive. Most people will recover. In the meantime, we are forced to slow down and reflect on what really matters in both our professional and personal lives. Our minds will become clearer over time, and the new normal will encompass a genuine appreciation of our vulnerability, our need to unify, and the importance of our neighbours, teams and wider community.

As a leader you can help unify efforts and support the shift from an individual focus to a more collaborative approach. In seeing the bigger picture, we must also remember to have humility and respect for nature and the planet we live on.

4. Set clear priorities and stay in the moment

With the bigger picture in mind, leaders should use sound judgement to plan for the most probable occurrences. Preparing for ‘worst case’ scenarios is unhelpful and fear-driven, and can add to a feeling of overwhelm. When setting priorities in a crisis, always bring yourself back to this present moment, and act according to what would be most useful to accomplish right now. Don’t let your mind spiral into negative thoughts or ‘what ifs’. We have what Buddhists call ‘monkey minds’, which means that our thoughts have a tendency to spin out into all sorts of scenarios, and can be fuelled by creative imagination, fear and panic. The Buddhists have always advised us on the need to tame our monkey minds and stay in the moment.

5. Organise a network of rapid response teams and decentralise decision-making

Set up a network of crisis response teams, led by emotionally intelligent, resilient people, ideally with crisis management experience. It is not that long ago when businesses had to respond to a sudden global economic recession – and I can see already that leaders are tapping into that inbuilt resilience and reflecting back on the lessons learned; what worked well and deploying tactics accordingly. Give clear direction to your teams on the key priorities but, in a crisis, decentralise decisions-making. This is the time to empower local teams to respond as they see appropriate, whilst still staying accountable to the big picture purpose and values of the organisation.

6. Bond with your customers

Let your customers know that you remain committed to excellent customer service. Explain that we are all in this together – you, your teams and your customers – and we will all come through this together. There is nothing more bonding than working alongside one another on a difficult problem, and coming up with solutions together. It is an opportunity to show your customers what you are made of and demonstrate a genuine commitment to serving their needs. They will appreciate it, and when all this is over, they will remember that you were there for them when they needed you most. Governments are setting up new loan schemes, banks are offering mortgage holidays – what can your business creatively set up to support your customers over the next few months?

7. Communicate regularly and often

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Never cancel any planned communications events. Even when if there is nothing new to share, stick with the session simply to let people know that you have no new information for them at present. In a crisis, people want more connection than usual. Don’t hole up in central HQ behind locked doors, offering information on only a ‘need to know’ basis. Instead, be more transparent and communicate more than usual. Engage with all the available tech and social media to reach your teams and customers with messages of reassurance and clear priorities.

8. Accept how things are, manage expectations but be optimistic

Yes, we are faced with a situation we don’t want or enjoy. Yes, there is isolation, social distancing, sickness and concern about loved ones who might be vulnerable. Yes, this is how it is. Accept it. Acknowledge it. Try not to be angry about it. Once you accept the situation, then your mind can focus on doing something creative and useful to organise, plan, manage, support and control. Being optimistic helps you to stay resilient. Keep a healthy perspective and don’t catastrophise. Focusing on your leadership tasks will help you to stay calm, motivated and in control. Make decisions with the information at hand. Be agile and ready to change decisions as and when necessary.

9. Have empathy for yourself and others

Be aware and alert to the behaviour of your bosses, peers, employees and your customers. Pause to observe how they’re coping and think about their needs, as well as how you can respond best support them. Also remember to have empathy for yourself and take care of your own well-being. Enough rest, sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise are very important. If possible, now is the time for business leaders to show leadership in the community as well. How could you use your skills to support your local neighbourhood? For example, a technology firm could offer local schools free technology services such as video conferencing to support online education for those not attending school in person.

10. Empower yourself

Finally – and most importantly – empower yourself to lead. You don’t need permission or a great title to be a leader. You don’t need to be the CEO to solve a problem, big or small. Adversity tests us to be the best version of ourselves. Empower yourself to shine, to be resourceful, to be the one to make a difference. Model to others how to stay calm, set clear priorities, communicate, bond with customers and show empathy for yourself and others. Empower yourself and others to step up and be the ones to lead those people who need more guidance now than ever before.

Niamh O’Keeffe is a corporate leadership advisor, with extensive experience across strategy consulting, head-hunting, and executive coaching. She is an internationally-recognised expert on the performance acceleration of leaders and their teams, and the author of ‘Future Shaper: how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world’ (published 2020).

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