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Pandemic leadership

Pandemic leadership

What I learned from a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders of associations and beyond: no university or academic institution could have prepared us for this challenge.

It was not just another crisis - where we face a change in the behaviours of staff and/or members. It touched us on a personal and human level. While we were taking care of our families and friends, our organisations were (and still are) at high risk.

Moreover, we have experienced a sequence of events of enormous scale occurring at an overwhelming speed. This resulted in a high degree of uncertainty that gave rise to disorientation, a feeling of losing control, and strong emotional disturbance.

Meetings and conferences were badly hit. However, even here, we have seen many inspiring examples of associations responding quickly and turning things around.

Seeing a crisis dressed as an opportunity and creating a positive outcome requires strong leadership.

Here’s what I have learned:

Recognise that the organization is facing a crisis. Being honest about a grave situation isn’t easy and leaders often resort to ‘let’s wait and see what happens’. Instead leaders should be proactive about recognizing the crisis and mapping out the risks.

Once the risks are mapped, leaders should establish a ‘task force’ / ’war room’ that will deal with the new threats on a daily basis. This group should be represented by organisational units, including HR, IT, operations, marketing, finance, education etc.

In this task force, decisions should be made with speed over precision. The situation is changing by the day — sometimes even by the hour. The best leaders quickly process available information, rapidly determine what matters most, and make decisions with confidence.

Leaders need to provide regular communications to the entire organisation - establishing a clear routine and channels where the important information can be found easily by staff - this builds trust. When communication stops, people are likely to imagine the worst and fill the void with their own scenarios. Don’t forget to frequently communicate with all key stakeholders including external ones.

Internal communication should be positive and mindful of the stress they may cause staff. Especially when communicating decisions that have a direct effect on them or their teams, like reducing working hours/days, furlough, and so on.

While it might be difficult, leaders should be honest and transparent. They should deliver disappointing news in a clear, straightforward way and avoid giving a false perception that everything is alright.  Throughout the coronavirus crisis, leaders have had to relay a lot of bad news—extensions of stay-at-home orders, large-scale furloughs and layoffs, sickness, and even death. But leadership scholars agree that even in such dire circumstances, honesty is the best policy.

Leaders who don’t share all the facts quickly become less credible, and such actions can lead to more panic. Those that gain credibility demonstrate that they understand the risks and consequences of a situation. At the same time, leaders should not expect that they know all the answers. Good leaders admit when they don’t know the answer to a question and defer to other experts.

Not any less important, leaders should communicate hope and a sense of control. Show the company the light at the end of the tunnel, and the path the organisation will have to take in order to get there with minimal damage. This gives a direction and a goal for the team to achieve together.

Engage for impact - leaders cannot manage an organisation without a fantastic and talented team. In times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your talents. Effective leaders understand the circumstances and distractions around, but they find ways to engage and motivate their people, clearly and thoroughly communicating important new goals and information. This point deserves extra attention because although the pandemic is, of course, a health crisis, it has sparked a financial crisis as well. Leaders need to reiterate new priorities frequently to ensure continued alignment in this time of constant and stressful change.

Finally, be a role model - leaders must act according to what they are asking others to do. Especially when this pandemic forced us to accelerate the digital transformation. According to management consultants McKinsey, managers cannot lead a revolution that they don’t understand. Senior executives need to enhance their own digital capabilities to drive change from the top. That means learning about the implications of digitisation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) and what they mean for their organisation. People will follow the example of leaders they respect.

In conclusion, we have learned so much during the pandemic and we are still learning. Follow these tips, keep your team engaged, and new opportunities will emerge.


Sources: McKinsey Insights - Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges; HBR - 4 Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis

About the author:

Ori Lahav is VP Client & Operations at Kenes Group and an AMI Expert Contributor on the subject of leadership and strategy. He is the President of IAPCO (International Association of Professional Congress Organisers) and has been recognised for two consecutive years by event professionals as one of Eventex Top 100 Most Influential People in the industry.