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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Apr 2020

Crisis Leadership: 3 Hows

This is a challenging time to be a leader. I want to share three ways I see leaders handling things well.

We are in a genuine crisis. Crises are characterised by surprise, high uncertainty, and threat.* In times of crisis, normal rules do not apply but the new rules are not always clear. Organisational leaders can no longer act as if the world is turning in an orderly fashion, that visions are achievable and strategies reliable.  

Karl Weick (1993) has described this disruption as the opposite of déjà vu.

What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild it collapse together. (It) feels like vu jàdé—the opposite of déjà vu: I’ve never been here before, I have no idea where I am, and I have no idea who can help me. 

It’s no easy thing to be a leader in this scenario. Amazing stamina is required. Leaders are under pressure to:

  • Define the situation being faced and what it means for the organisation
  • Demonstrate that leaders are somehow on top of the situation
  • Respond rapidly and effectively
  • Show empathy and human understanding 
  • Give difficult messages which may increase anxiety.

Now that we have had a few weeks of this playing out, I wanted to take time to acknowledge the enormous effort of my clients in these taxing times and to appreciate some of what I see as fabulous leadership practice. I’m a believer that the how of leadership is as important as the what. Here are three example of how leaders are showing up that I want to draw attention to.

1 Inclusivity

I’m seeing leaders being sensitive to the different contexts of their people. Let’s face it, most organisational leaders are socially and economically privileged.  Awareness of this privilege at this time is essential.  I’ve seen leaders being incredibly thoughtful about the contexts that their people are living in, whether alone, single-parenting, flat-sharing or shielding someone vulnerable. I am seeing leaders staying humble, inclusive and never assuming how others might be experiencing this crisis.

2 Humility

It is tempting to demonstrate that you, as a leader, are in control. But something as beyond our control as a pandemic, can cause the most self-confident of leaders to eat humble pie. A common narrative of control is the use of war-like language and metaphor. Although such messages can be rousing in the short term, they are unlikely to see us through the longer run. And, of course, they may not be true. Instead, what I am seeing in my clients is humility in the face of uncertainty. I see a willingness to let go of arrogant claims. Instead I am hearing the language of adaptation and responsiveness; leaders showing that they are doing their best to help their organisations and people adapt, but resisting the temptation to pose as super-heroes. Trump is giving us the gift of showing how not to do this one!

3 Vulnerability

Finally, I’m seeing leaders open up about their own experience of this crisis. Leaders who are Zooming their team with a toddler on their knee, admitting openly that they could do with a hug or that they are feeling powerless. I’m seeing leaders willing to cry and to talk about love and self-care. This crisis has given leaders new ways to show a human, everyday side of themselves that I hope will be one of the positive legacies of this pandemic.

Stay safe everyone and keep doing what you need to do. With love.

*Hermann, 1963; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003

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