Leadership during turbulent times

During the pandemic, leaders cannot not afford to think about people while thinking of business and bottom lines

By Author Anjali Bhole Desai   |   Published: 3rd Sep 2020   12:04 am

The pandemic is causing an unimaginable humanitarian crisis with thousands of lives disrupted, and leaders from different walks of life are trying to manage this unprecedented crisis. This has put the spotlight on some exemplary leaders who were unknown and unheard of and, on the other hand, also brought to the fore those who are struggling to handle the situation.

As a senior HR professional, I work with leaders, senior executives, heads of startups and their respective teams on how leaders can lead and support their people in bringing about growth and transformation in their organisations. Leadership will now have to be much more than knowing how to lead, motivate and retain people.

Given that this pandemic is likely to last for a longer duration, it would be worthwhile to study how Covid-19 could be a case for defining effective and not-so-effective (read good and bad) leadership qualities during turbulent times. Let us see what’s working!

Trust Among Employees

Leaders are facing the dilemma between doing what is right for the organisation and what is right for the people. ‘Employees needs’ (physical, mental and relational) apply at all times, but they are magnified in times of crisis. And it is in these times that people look to their leaders for compassion, care, and confidence.

Uncertainties may continue, but the one distilled message for leaders is that ‘your workforce is placing their trust in you’. They expect the leaders to keep them safe even as they are navigating the company through the difficult times. Leading with compassion and caring for your workforce and communities has become more essential than ever.

Honing a clear, honest, empathetic and simple approach as the situation evolves is critical. This is obvious, I know, yet I include it because in the current situation it may not be all about business at certain times. Hence, being authentic and being empathetic – may be required as individual/personal priorities do matter and should be paid heed to. The formula is to understand what people are going through first, then to prioritise appropriately.

Listen Proactively

Leaders should be open and willing to accept that they may not always know it all or always be right. “It’s time to move from being a know-it-all, to learn-it-all,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, underlining that it is really important to build a culture of listening-communicating- learning- sharing and debating differing views. I know of a CEO of a startup whose business has taken a big hit over the last few months, yet I see him doing everything to engage with his people and seek their views sincerely. For me, that is exemplary leadership. A leader/leadership team that engages proactively, and responds rather than reacts, goes a long way in navigating people and organisations through tough times.

Agility and Adaptability

A crisis is not the best time to set up new ways of doing things, but this pandemic gives many companies no choice. The best business leaders who hold out as examples are the ones who immediately worked to realign their organisations to do something relevant to help solve the crisis. Like the apparel manufacturers that swiftly moved to mask-making, the device manufacturers that switched to ventilator production or the perfume manufacturers who swiftly moved into making hand sanitisers. Not to mention several small-time entrepreneurs who took risks to customise and diversify their businesses. These demonstrate transformative leadership. It responds to both society’s needs, and the workforce’s desire to do something to help, to take pride in their work and make it meaningful and vital.

Inspiring and Transforming

It is definitely time now that authoritarian and transactional leadership, which is best described as checking off boxes and making sure others are following orders, sees its way out of every leader’s rulebook. Transformational leaders had been more exceptions than the rule, but this crisis has called on many leadership skills that transformational leaders apply.

To deal with the chaos, you need a clear underlying sense of what’s important and what are your organisation goals for the future. You have to fit all the messy pieces as they come at you into a mental model that can lay over the chaos. An uncomplicated definition is to start thinking this way: Management is accountability for the performance of a group of people. Putting this simple idea into practice is difficult, because management can be efficient only by exerting influence.

Transformational leaders can carry on influencing and motivating their teams by truly making a difference as they lead by example. Their style tends to use rapport, motivation, or understanding to engage followers. They are known to have courage, self-confidence, and the eagerness to make sacrifices for the larger good – qualities that are sustainable and worthwhile of emulating in the times to come.

What has permanently changed is how we evaluate people in charge and how we prioritise their capabilities. If we have learned anything, it is that leaders cannot afford to ‘stumble’ through this pandemic. They cannot not afford to think about people while thinking of business and bottom lines.

Cutting through all the noise out there about how to lead through a crisis, now is the time for leaders to anchor the safety and well-being of the people they are responsible for. Being at the helm of affairs, leaders must treat this health crisis as a defining moment for themselves and their organisations on how to make a positive difference.

(The author is founder and MD, HeRitAGE People Practices, and a leadership coach)


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