The COVID-19 crisis has significantly changed the role of leadership in organizations, having an impact above and beyond the functioning of any given system. The life experiences of many leaders have not prepared them for this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) crisis.
A static system will not work for leaders under the current state of affairs because of the vast amount of change and the prevailing uncertainty. Instead, leaders need a systematic approach that is agile, up to date and accurate. They cannot rely on their previous leadership capabilities; they need a new compass to be able to navigate these unprecedented times. They need highly trained coaches specializing in leading in times of crisis and recovery.
When uncertainty and ambiguity is high, people look to their leaders for answers. Here are seven strategies effective leaders use in these circumstances:
1. Give a Clear Direction
In times of crisis, leaders owe their people a clear sense of direction, even when visibility is poor. Their focus can be on the short term, which, along with regular updates, gives them the flexibility to respond to constant and rapid change.
2. Focus on People
Leaders need to take the human factor into account more than they have done before. They must lead people, as people. Because their employees are worried and uncertain, leaders need to proactively offer support, encouragement and engagement.
3. Find a Coach
Leaders need to discover their own humanity and bring it to the workplace with them — for many leaders, for the first time. They must find in themselves those “soft areas” that enable connection with their team members beyond the crisis. This magnitude of change is almost impossible to achieve without help or guidance, which is where coaching can help.
4. Be Transparent
In times of crisis, leaders can inspire trust by providing transparent and frequent information about what they know and what they do not know. Employees are not children from whom leaders must hide the grim reality. They are adults. With the right information, provided at the right time, they will develop the trust that is missing in the world right now.
Leaders can also inspire hope in such times, but it should be open-ended hope, without a deadline. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue, so it would be a mistake to offer hope with a timeline (“it will be over by the summer”). If that timeline were wrong, it could hurt morale and weaken psychological resilience.
5. Develop Self-leadership
Leaders need to set an example by leading themselves beyond the boundaries of their own concerns and uncertainties. In a time of crisis, without self-leadership, it is challenging and almost unethical to lead others.
Self-leadership in unknown stormy waters is a process that starts with leaders’ choosing to stand up for their principles or values. They go beyond their own limitations and difficulties to express those principles and values, and they set for themselves a clear direction and vision. Only then they can offer that direction to the people they lead.
6. Care for Their Team
Leaders need to help their team members overcome their fears so they can again be successful employees. They need to legitimize people’s concerns and not hold them against them. Great leaders like Churchill, Ghandi and Mandela are examples of this leadership trait.
7. Learn to Be a Real Leader
Real leaders lead people from where they are to where they know they can be. With the right leaders, employees grow and develop, reaching new heights of achievement. Not everyone who is promoted to a management position is a real leader. Real leaders learn and develop continuously and see the potential greatness in themselves and others.
As structures crumble and businesses are disrupted, we need this type of leader more than ever. They will navigate us through change and uncertainty.