How to spot the best leaders in a crisis

The shock felt by companies and institutions from the Covid-19 pandemic is relatively unique from a crisis perspective: ordinarily, crises faced by organisations are self-inflicted, industry-specific or geographically contained. Think oil spills, political scandals, or natural disasters.

We would usually see implicated leaders needing to hold it together for a finite period of time before our collective focus moves elsewhere. The global impact of this pandemic crisis has meant that we have a rare opportunity to compare leaders across companies, industries, and nations all facing pressure at the same time. We can more plainly see which leaders are building trust and which leaders are enabling fractures.

It was within this context that we brought together members of our Werkling community for an informal Peer Learning Session on Crisis Leadership. Here are a few of the themes that we explored.

Sense making

Crises are non-routine, important and time critical, and as such, the normal workings of a business are not optimised to react effectively to a crisis. If executives try to apply normal management practices “sped up” then they will fail: running the business, optimised for predictability and efficiency, is not the same as responding to a crisis. In a crisis, people, whether they be employees, customers, shareholders or the public, are looking to make sense of what has happened. The best crisis leaders know that making sense of the event is key, and that if they don’t explain why and what happened, then others will step into the void and tell stories that may not be right.

Responsive action

We talked about some of the organisations we’ve collectively observed through this time, and the leaders who acted quickly to support the move to remote working were able to eliminate some of the very human fear about safety and wellbeing, and move more quickly to productivity. Others who lagged in supporting immediate wellbeing, by being slow to move people to remote working or keeping messaging to very operational matters rather than demonstrating empathy, had less success in maintaining motivation.

Empathy and credibility

Reputation is the currency of a crisis. Those organisations or governments that are seen to have empathy for those affected, as well as competence in taking appropriate action, will build trust and in doing so, build their reputation. A crisis can be worth more than several advertising campaigns in building or tearing down a reputation, because people are actually paying attention. The spotlight is on those leaders and those who are able to achieve the ‘sweet spot’ of being seen as highly credible and highly empathetic will earn trust from those they need to influence.

Authentic communication

The Werkling crew all shared examples of leaders we’d seen through this pandemic crisis. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, was highlighted as a leader that has communicated clearly and evenly throughout the crisis, sharing a framework for decision making and steps required to keep citizens safe in order to prepare Kiwis for hardship. She also demonstrated empathy, her Facebook Live conversations seen as authentic, real and utterly human. It was these attributes that saw compliance and acceptance from New Zealanders with the lockdown and distancing requirements; and supported the strong position in which they have now found themselves.

Stakeholder juggle

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, was discussed as an example of strong crisis leadership. His communications to guests, hosts, investors and employees throughout this time; and the humanity shown in his recent message to team members have stood out to many. Not only has he demonstrated empathy, he backed it up with solid commitments and actions to a complex stakeholder set in a highly affected industry. The group discussed the difficult position that leaders may find themselves in during times of crisis where they need to balance conflicting stakeholder needs.

We are moving to a new phase in this pandemic in Australia. As we begin to gradually open up and return to workplaces, safety will be at the forefront of our minds. People will be paying attention. Those leaders who intrinsically understand that both empathy and effectiveness are key ingredients have the potential to build ever stronger reputations for their brand and their culture.

Thanks to our fab Werklings who attended the virtual Peer Learning Session. We loved the insights and input from all of you!