Perrett Laver - Leading through Covid19 18 May 2020

Leadership has possibly never been more in the spotlight, or more critical, than during this truly global crisis. Everyone, and every organisation has been directly impacted. Speaking with Chief Executives, Chairs and Directors around the world, and hearing how they’re managing through the crisis, a few aspects of leadership are emerging as particularly relevant, and needed.

Shortly before all this started, we undertook internal training at Perrett Laver with a focus on models of leadership. We discussed common organisational challenges and the traits required, and demonstrated, by the ‘best’ leaders in different types of organisations, at different stages of growth and maturity. We talked about adaptive, technical and critical responses. We identified inspirational, inclusive, transformational, feminist and adaptive models of leadership. And we considered the many and varied qualities leaders need to have: emotional intelligence, also known as ‘EQ’; as well as comfort with change, complexity and scale, and inclusivity, to name a few.

Continuously, through our work, we are asked to find leaders who can demonstrate a key character trait - resilience. That’s taken on a whole new meaning and urgency given the current context and the need for all leaders to adapt to new and, often challenging, conditions both personally and professionally. The universalal nature of this Coronavirus pandemic means that resilience has become a defining characteristic across entire teams, organisations and communities.

So, what are the other traits that define successful leadership time during this crisis? And does it look the same across organisations of varying type and size? There is an immediate and often unforgiving judgement passed on how leaders are behaving, what they are saying and how they are choosing to communicate. We have all seen the articles praising female leaders in particular. But what are the traits that successful female leaders have shown in dealing with the unique challenges presented by this pandemic in addressing uncertainty, ambiguity and fear? Jacinda Ahern has become the global poster woman for effective and compassionate leadership, and she’s far from the only person leading well, whether it’s a nation or a school.

The most successful and inspiring leaders at this time have been characterised not just by resilience, but by honesty, crystal clear communication, empathy and care.

Communication has always been key. At this extraordinary time, we see strongest leaders adjusting to the fact that many people are working in a way that is unfamiliar and challenging. The messages that people receive effectively are those that are regular, concise, clear and compassionate. There have been several notable examples such as Leo Varadkar’s national address on “the calm before the storm”, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s idea of using television to talk directly to her country’s children and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s dedicated press conference for children where no adults were allowed, responding to children’s questions from across the country. Angela Merkel has been repeatedly praised for being calm and reassuring, while also decisive and informed. The UK’s, Queen Elizabeth II gave a rare address to her nation, articulating the hope that “in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge."

Leaders right now are having to adapt their style and draw on a range of approaches, to address critical issues of change management in a highly uncertain and rapidly evolving landscape. Strategic plans are on hold, or quickly being reframed, as they necessarily yield to crisis management responses.

Being adaptive is essential, being able to identify and implement new processes and perspectives, while rapidly bringing people on board. Organisations are having to accelerate decision making, as they move from crisis management, into survival mode, and then thinking forward to revival. There isn’t the luxury of time to test and pilot new ways of working, and new systems are being developed, introduced and rolled out at speed. The same is true of the ability to embrace technical solutions for entire workforces suddenly working remotely. The ability to prioritise, focus and be decisive helps organisations move forward and respond to emerging and evolving challenges. 

Truly inclusive leadership is critical at a time when marginalised, vulnerable and minority groups are facing additional challenges posed by this ‘new normal.’ Harvard Business Review recently published an excellent article highlighting what it means to be an inclusive leader in a crisis, which is well worth a read. It’s easy, and possibly tempting, to shelve difficult conversations around inclusion and diversity, but this is exactly the time when organisations should be working even harder to consider their workforce, and demonstrate their commitment to organisational values through a crisis. The pandemic will end, and on the other side, the best leaders would have been seen to uphold core values through it all.

What is clear is that the leaders, and organisations, responding in the most positive and constructive ways to current events, are acting decisively, with speed, agility, empathy and transparency. In some cases, this can mean the difference between life and death, but even in less extreme scenarios, it can mean the difference between an engaged, constructive and productive team and one that is anxious, fearful and immobilised.

CEOs, Team leaders, Headteachers, managers and supervisors are all doing an incredible, and practically impossible job of keeping organisations and operations running, teams motivated, and employees cared for during these challenging times. Aside from all the models and traits and qualities mentioned above, the simple fact is that the best leaders, at all levels, across all kinds of organisations have one thing in common, which is being human and accessible, conveying vulnerability and really meaning it when they communicate, in various ways, ‘that we’re all in this together’.

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