Leadership in the times of Corona

Over the last few weeks, life has totally changed for millions across the world. Work from home and online meetings have emerged as the new normal, as the world battles to combat the coronavirus and people are forced to stay at home. People can only socialise online, from their homes, adding new backgrounds to Zoom calls for excitement or posting pictures of how they are doing the household chores. Discussions over coffee at the workplace and the daily all-hands team meetings seem to be a distant past. We are struggling with a number of anxieties, ranging from the well-being of our family members, to the future of our jobs (with a number of companies announcing salary cuts and layoffs).

The VUCA world is here to stay

A few years ago, VUCA emerged as a popular term across corporates and business circles globally. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This term is apt to define today’s scenario -for people, businesses as well as individuals.

We are in the middle of a black swan event and the high level of uncertainty has resulted in disorientation, personal anxiety, and a feeling of emotional turmoil. This coronavirus pandemic has created immense pressure for the leaders, at global, national, local as well as organisation level. 

Leadership makes all the difference

If we look at businesses, there is a lot to worry about. This unprecedented situation has impacted businesses of all sizes, and across industries. Leaders may be struggling to manage internal pressures around budget and team scale down as well as the pressures to plan for the post Corona era. 

However, it is important to note that it is the leadership that can make the biggest difference when the world around us is falling apart. Leaders are expected to respond to the crisis and ensure that not only the business impact is minimal, but also the employees are taken care of. There is no defined format to deal with a crisis of this magnitude, primarily because of the extent of damage, both in terms of time and business impact cannot be ascertained. 

There will be a long list of challenges to address. Such scenarios can result in disengaged and disoriented workforce as high stress levels can impact the ability of individuals to hear, understand and recall information. Attention span tends to go down as the brain is pre-occupied with multiple challenging scenarios to deal with. 

The fact that this is a one-of-its-kind of scenario that is changing by the minute, businesses and leaders need to be on their toes and keep revisiting their plans as the situation demands. While companies can lay down a set of measures that can work temporarily like announcing work from home for employees and encouraging team members to make the most of technology to stay connected, the actual need is to outline behaviors and mindsets that can be the guiding light for leaders during similar crises scenarios.

Here are some of the leadership traits that can work in one’s favour:

Keep your cool

This is the most critical one, when dealing with any kind of crisis. It is important to stay calm and not panic. It is understandable that one can be anxious and panic in such times, primarily because of the uncertainty around the situation at hand. You might have just finished a stressful call with the CEO where all the leaders have been asked to reduce your teams’ headcount and also inform the team members of a pay cut for the next 6 months. However, you should ensure that you plan how to inform your team about this and not sound flustered and upset if you get on a call with your team. In case you need time to calm your senses, please go ahead and take some time before you get your team on the call. 

A good leader is the one who can keep his/her cool and calm demeanor at all times. The team members tend to look up to their leaders in critical situations. Leaders should emerge as the pillars of strength for their teams.

Optimism and positivity

In such scenarios, keeping up the positivity and optimism can make all the difference. When a majority of the world is battling with lockdown, recession and high health risk due to the Coronavirus, optimism and positivity can give that ray of hope to your team members. A leader should try to encourage his/her team members to see the positive side of things. Encourage them to invest time in adding to their skills by taking up an online course or reading up on a new subject. Also, make them believe that this is just a phase that will pass.

Think and communicate effectively 

It is advisable that the leaders plan their communication well in advance, so as to ensure that all critical points are taken care of. Leaders need to think strategically and communicate in an effective manner. It is important to evaluate the crisis from a near and long-term impact and plan the course of action accordingly. 

When in a crisis situation, people appreciate honesty. Leaders should not make fake promises in such scenarios and communicate persuasively. Transparency in such scenarios really matters. Also, it is advisable to not beat round the bush and come to the point, as people generally do not have the patience to listen to long stories. In case the business is in trouble, the same should be communicated to the team, along with the steps being taken to address it.

Steady communication is important. Leader should keep his/her team members informed about the latest developments. Emails might not be the best option here. A combination of emails and video calls could work better. 

Be empathetic and care for people

Being empathetic can be a great asset in case of a crisis. A great leader is the one who puts his/her focus on the people who depend on him/her. A leader needs to understand that such a pandemic requires a higher level of patience, empathy and frequent connect with the team members. A leader need to be mature enough to understand the challenges that one might be facing on a personal level and stand by their team members.

He/she should create opportunities for social conversations (in every team catch up call), make every individual feel valued and appreciate the hard work and support. A good leader is the one who can connect with the team members beyond the tasks they do and be someone who they can confide in. It is possible that the team members have questions around uncertainty. A good leader should understand the team members’ fear, empathise and frame the responses accordingly. Being defensive or politically correct is not advisable.

Be humble and express gratitude

People appreciate leaders who are not full of themselves and humble, more so in such situations. Be grounded and express gratitude to all the hard work that the team is putting in. You might be a hard taskmaster who has set high benchmarks for everything and believe that the world is sub-standard, but this approach will not work for a leader trying to lead a team in such crisis scenarios.

A leader needs to be compassionate about the team members. There might be individuals with their own personal challenges- ailing parents, financial crisis or any such issues. Be compassionate and flexible with all team members. A good leader should be thankful to all his/her employees for their efforts and make them believe that they are an integral part of the organisation. This can go a long way in improving the morale of your team members.

Stand by your team

There might be a scenario that you, as a leader, need to take tough decisions and let people go. In such scenarios, stand by the exiting team member and extend all possible support to help them get a new job. You never know where you will cross paths again. A gesture like this builds a lot of confidence in the existing team members and the leader will be much more respectable.

Ask for help

The leaders are traditionally supposed to be that alpha character who is strong, can take decisions and manage everything on their own. However, this hero archetype persona is passé. Today, it is okay to ask the team to step in and help out the leader. A great leader is the one who knows that he/she can need help and support and does not shy away from saying this in as many words. 

Final Word

Effective leadership in a crisis requires a lot of patience, thinking and working collaboratively. It might require a few heartburns and some tough decisions. However, the leader should always try to be empathetic, while keeping interest of the business in mind. Leaders should be flexible and adjust their game plan as the situation unfolds. They should address the challenge with openness and optimism, being mindful of the empathy for how people may feel.

This is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the team and inspire confidence when the world is struggling to cope with a pandemic. A leader should support his/her team members and encourage them to put in their best. He/she should work towards building trust and collaboration within the team. ‘One for all, all for one’ is the mantra to follow. 

This is just a temporary phase and the leaders should take this as an opportunity and be the shining light as we sail through these tough times.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha heads PR and Communication at BharatPe. She has over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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