Crisis puts the spotlight on leadership. Most teams, provided they are composed of intelligent, motivated people who know what they need to do, can sail along comfortably when things are going well, and leaders have a pretty easy time of it. A corrective word here, a pat on the back there, and the team carries on doing what it does best.
But when crisis comes – particularly when it is sudden and drastic, coming from a direction no one anticipated – then all the emphasis shifts to the leader. The old certainties have been wiped out. No one knows quite what to do next. Now is the time for the leader to step up and do their job, by giving direction to the team and showing them the way forward.
Some leaders become their team’s centre of gravity, restoring order and calm and enabling them to get things done. But what makes the difference between these leaders and others who signally fail to offer the leadership their teams need?
My research into the history of leadership over the past twenty years – concentrating on what leaders actually do and what behaviours they exhibit rather than on what the theory of leadership say they should do – suggests there are three key variables: the level of preparedness beforehand; the ability of the leader to, in Napoleon’s words, ‘define reality and then give hope’; and the leader’s own integrity and the trust their followers place in them.
Preparedness is not so much of disaster plans or physical preparation as it is a state of mind. Andrew Grove, the former chairman of Intel, remarked on the need for ‘leadership paranoia’. Things may be going well now, but at any moment they could blow up in our faces. If they do, are we ready? How will we respond? Grove argued that leaders should constantly rehearse disasters and review their own responses as a way of remaining mentally agile and flexible, so that when crisis comes we are ready for it.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, epitomises what Grove was talking about. While other governments dithered over their response to coronavirus, Ardern announced an early lockdown and complete border closure. ‘We go early, we go hard’, she said, and her calm and decisive action means New Zealand has so far been spared the horrors visited in other countries. For the most part, New Zealanders have followed her lead and stayed calm. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, took similar early, decisive action and has continued to provide calm and steady leadership, with the result that despite Greece’s fractious political landscape, opposition parties have lined up to support his government.
Ardern has also taken Napoleon’s dictum to heart. An unflenching realist, she has painted a picture of the horrors of coronavirus, but also constantly reminds her government – and her country – that the future is full of hope. Bernard Looney, CEO of BP, has also attempted to allay fears of his staff, first by promising that there will be no job losses for at least three months – despite the fact that the price of oil is crashing through the floor – and also arguing that BP will come out stronger at the end of the crisis. Both realism and hope are essential. Downplaying the nature of the crisis or trying to make light of it will erode the trust of followers and cause them to lose heart. But realism always has to be tempered by hope. That gives followers the strength to endure the bad things that are happening now, because they believe a better day is coming.
And why do they believe in this better day? Because they trust their leaders to tell them the truth. Being straight with our teams, open and honest about the situation and the solutions, is the best way to engender loyalty. In times of crisis, uncertainty and not knowing are the biggest causes of demotivation. One of the leader’s main tasks in any crisis is to provide certainty, a bedrock on which the team can stand, take stock and set about their tasks.
Be prepared, be realistic and be hopeful. If the leader can do all these things, then they should be able to hold their teams together and get them through the crisis. Fail to do any one of these things, and there is an excellent chance the team will disintegrate.
Morgen Witzel is a writer and lecturer. He is the author or co-author of more than thirty books, including works on leadership, ethics and governance, and has written for periodicals including the Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Toronto Globe and Mail and Los Angeles Times as well as many professional publications. He is an editorial board member of The Smart Manager, India’s leading English-language business magazine, for whom he has written a bi-monthly column for the past eighteen years.
Morgen lectures at the University of Exeter Business School on subjects including strategy, leadership and ethics, and at the University of Edinburgh, University of Warwick, Audencia Nantes in Frances and the Economics University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and has been a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund.