Leading others through the Covid-19 outbreak

Written by Robert Landon
17th March 2020
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Sandstorm

Three principles for leading through Covid-19

This unexpected and unwelcome new organism across our planet has made us all pay sudden attention. Even now in the early stages of disease spread, the potential impact on lives and livelihoods is apparent – and deeply shocking. For each leader, there is a struggle to look bravely ahead to what might be coming, without succumbing to the counter-productive effects of panic. 

While this is clearly different, we’ve been reflecting on the principles which have helped us as a team through previous upheavals including the Arab Spring and 2014-16 oil price crash. Neither event had the same global breadth of impact as coronavirus likely will, but they did pose threats to our business and even the health of our staff on occasion. 

We have summarised here three principles that we will be trying to apply in our teams. Hopefully they can be helpful for you too.  

1. Involve the whole team together

Leaders are often busiest in times of crisis, with a clear sense of purpose – driven by the belief that they can do something positive to improve the situation. In a noble effort not to burden their team, they may keep staff at a distance from the planning and re-organising efforts. While at times this is essential, there are many times where it is not necessary – and actually very unhelpful for staff well-being. 

Everyone thrives on having a sense of purpose and being able to take action to affect change. One of the worst feelings is of helplessness. As leaders, we can help to empower our teams by bringing them into the planning and decision making process, giving people a voice and allowing people to take on responsibility.  

Here are a few practical things we’re doing: 

  • Increasing the frequency of the whole team meeting together. We’re using video calls as many staff are working from home 
  • Sharing our plan with the entire team and giving members responsibility to develop and implement different areas 
  • We have joined two teams together for a better sense of community and to ensure we’re all benefitting from the best ideas 

2. Being open about challenges

It is very tempting to bury bad news – but it’s rarely a good leadership strategy.  

Our experience is that staff pick up on the vibes when managers are discussing serious issues that involve them. You didn’t hire stupid people: they know something is up! 

In the Coronavirus outbreak, anyone watching the news will be aware of the possible impact on jobs and other areas of life very important to them. Silence from leadership can make them worry that mangers aren’t taking risks seriously and planning adequately. Or, equally negative, they can begin to imagine that the worst possible case is happening, or else the leaders would have shared what was going on.  

Uncomfortable as it can be, sharing bad news early and talking with the whole team about potential scenarios will help them through this tough time. Here are some things we’re trying to do: 

  • Scenarios. Given things are uncertain, we’re talking about different scenarios and sharing our ideas about how to respond at each level. While trying to show we’re not expecting the worst case, we also want to communicate that we are preparing for it 
  • Two way. We’re giving space for everyone to share how the news is affecting them and be heard. We also want to benefit from everyone’s practical ideas. The other benefit is that we can check understanding and avoid painful miscommunications. 
  • Tone. We’re trying to stay calm and communicate calm.  

3. Keeping the long-term view in mind

“This too shall pass” – although it may not feel like it now! 

Beyond the outbreak, life will resume. A great question for a leader to ask is “what do we want to be like after the outbreak”. Long-term thinking involves considering: 

  • Long term business objectives – how these will be affected and whether there are in fact opportunities to advance any of these faster. 
  • Values. How can these be lived out through the crisis so they are strengthened in the culture of your team – a legacy that will give rewards long after the crisis is over. 
  • Relationships – are on of our most significant long-term assets. A crisis is an almost unparalleled chance to demonstrate that people matter to you and to strengthen your most important bonds.  
  • Developing your team – as people are outside their normal role, or perhaps with no work to do, can you help them find new development opportunities? 

“The most fortunate of us all in our journey through life frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which greatly afflict us. To fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives.”

Thomas Jefferson

What are you focussing on as a leader through this time?  Get in touch and see how we can help. 

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