Common Mistakes Leaders Make in a Crisis like COVID-19

How leaders handle this crisis will make or break a business

by Niamh O’Keeffe

As we navigate this global pandemic, companies and their leaders are at a breaking point—and only the most adaptable will survive.

No one wants to admit it, but leaders at the top are frightened; there are fewer knowns and the pace of change ushered in by the coronavirus is so fast-moving that it is hard to keep up. Rather than be overwhelmed by an onset of new challenges, let’s rewrite the rules to determine a more positive future for ourselves and our organizations.

The following are the most common mistakes most leaders are already making.

Trying to Control the Situation
There is no rulebook for a crisis like COVID-19. Rather than trying to control this situation, or feeling overwhelmed by the lack of control, leaders should try to shift their focus to developing a new leadership skill — the ability to rapidly evaluate an evolving situation and respond with compassionate, creative and collaborative solutions.

In our leadership lifetime, the world has never suffered a global pandemic, so this is new and unchartered territory. The closest experience that leaders have is the most recent global economic recession, and already we see government and leaders quickly accessing that experience to tap into resilience and lessons learned. When the time comes, we will look back on this, too, and learn the lessons and build our contingency plans accordingly.

Not Stepping Back to See the Bigger Picture
There is growing pressure on governments to exit lock-down and help the economy get back to normal. However, this emphasis on returning to “normal” falsely implies that we think we can go back to where we were. It will not be as simple as that.

Leaders need to step back and see the bigger picture. Leaders need to acknowledge the severity of both short-term and long-term business economic fallout from COVID-19 and try to pivot their businesses accordingly to an adjusted or new set of products and services, and delivery platforms. It might help to think of pre-COVID-19 as “normal,” the current crisis as the “new normal” and post-COVID-19 as the “next normal.”

Not Communicating Enough
In any crisis it is important to communicate more regularly and more often, because people want more reassurance and more information than usual. Leaders should set out how regularly they plan to be in touch, and stick to that schedule. It’s important to not wait longer than a week for employees and key stakeholders to hear from their leaders; doing so will create a vacuum of silence that will inevitably be filled with unhelpful, fear-led rumors.

Never cancel any planned communications events. Even when if there is nothing new to share, stick with the planned session to let people know that there is nothing new to communicate yet.

Take the opportunity to be encouraging and explain what plans are in place to continue working on solutions.

Not Decentralizing Decision-Making
Centralizing decision-making in a crisis like COVID-19 is a mistake because, although the pandemic is global, it is occurring at different rates in different countries. Business leaders should allow country heads to establish their own response. In their own organizations, business leaders should give clear direction to their teams on the key priorities — but decentralize decision-making and empower local teams to respond on how to deliver on those key priorities as they see appropriate, whilst still staying accountable to big-picture purpose and values of the organization.

However, just as individual team members should not isolate themselves from each other, it’s important to not let the team distance itself from the rest of the organization and what is happening at headquarters and around the world. Ideally, different country teams can be leveraged to help each other through the worst parts of this crisis.

Not Accessing the Experience in One’s Organization
Leaders should allow space for everyone at every level to step up to play their part and be open to their ideas and resourcefulness. It will be interesting to notice whether members of a business’s diverse and minority groups will be the ones to make maximum contribution because of their inbuilt resilience and life experience of responding to situations where the odds are stacked against them.

It is not that long ago when businesses had to respond to a sudden global economic recession — and I can see already that leaders who went through that experience are tapping into that inbuilt resilience and reflecting back on the lessons learned and what worked well, and deploying tactics accordingly.

Missing the Opportunity to Bond with One’s Customer and Community
Lack of transparency would be a mistake. This crisis is happening to all of us and there is nowhere to hide. Business leaders need to let their customers know that the team may be working remote from the office but remain committed to excellent customer service. They should reach out and explain that we are all in this together and we will all come through this together.

There is nothing more bonding than working with one’s customer in a transparent way during a crisis and coming up with solutions together. Beyond customers, businesses have an opportunity to show what they really stand for, and show their support to the community suffering around them. Business leaders can take this opportunity to show what resources their business has that they can redeploy for the benefit of those less well off during this crisis.

Moving to Remote-Working without a Holistic Employee Engagement Strategy
It is a mistake to think that it is business as usual for employees working from home. Employee stress and burnout should be a concern as workers grapple with the healthcare implications of COVID-19 on loved ones, and their requirement to work from home while other members of the family have to be home-schooled and their other partner is also working from home.

Business leaders should develop a holistic employee engagement strategy to support the emotional and social health of their people — from employee assistance programs to leaders hosting virtual coffee informal check-ins. No one should be expected to be superhuman and deliver the same 100-percent rate of output during a global pandemic and country lockdown. This goes for the leader, too. Leaders are not superhuman; it’s important they remember to take care of themselves as well as taking care of their people.

Niamh O’Keeffe is a corporate leadership advisor and author of Future Shaper: how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world (published 2020).

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