by Richie Etwaru

10 suggestions to lead effectively during an unprecedented pandemic

Mar 18, 2020
IT Leadership

Be an effective crisis leader. The world needs leadership now, and it needs it from you.

leadership execs superimposed on building
Credit: Getty Images

The coronavirus (COVID-19) – declared by the World Health Organization on March 11th, 2020 as a health pandemic – has become a global mega-crisis. The health pandemic has been compounded with a global financial market meltdown, and geo-political tensions resulting in a global mega-crisis comprising of international travel bans, widespread social isolation, a run on goods, and the majority of the world’s population seeking/needing leadership, hope and consolation.

We are not short on leaders, that’s for sure. We are not short on good leaders either. However, we are short on leaders with the experience, bravery, courage and honor to lead during a global mega-crisis. This is not a criticism of leaders or the state of leadership as a practice, instead it is a harsh look at the reality that most leaders alive today have not been presented with the demand to lead in such unprecedented circumstances.

Below are 10 suggestions that may help leaders rise to this moment.

1. Put individuals ahead of institutions

This may sound like common sense, and many leaders do this partially, or in moments. During a global mega-crisis where lives are at stake, families are under stress and strain, communities are left alone to pull together, and countries recoil into nationalism, it is important for you to remember that institutions are human-made, and replaceable. The coronavirus mega-crisis is one of life and death for many, coupled with a micro-threat at the sustainability of the human species.

As a leader, you should strive now to be more people-first than any other leader in history. Let employees and followers know that you are putting the lives of individuals ahead of the life of an institution. Say to your customers that you will be late with a deliverable for a few weeks because you want to make sure your employees are all safe, and secure.

If you are brave enough to say this, say it: “It is more important that all of our employees survive than it is for our company to survive the crisis”. See what happens; I would be willing to bet that your employees will ensure even more that your company survives.

2. Cultivate hope, not just confidence

As a leader you are a master of cultivating confidence. The combination of a vision powered by art, and the numbers powered by math have served you well in cultivating confidence with your employees and followers. Confidence says to employees and followers that we know how this will play out, here is why, and these are the numbers. Confidence is important to cultivate in a crisis, but hope is what moves employees and followers.

Hope is saying that even though you are confident that this will turn out well based on history and the numbers, you are also confident that the human spirit can overcome the unthinkable.

Hope is the courage to say to your employees and followers that “we are all going to be ok, regardless of the numbers”.

3. Reduce your risk tolerance to zero

This will prove to be more difficult than it sounds. As a leader you have trained yourself to take on calculated risks, you may be immune to risk, or worst you might be addicted to risk. In a global mega-crisis, employees and followers are likely looking for safety, not strategy. This is the opposite of what you have been delivering to be an exceptional non-crisis leader.

During a global mega-crisis, it is important to demonstrate with leadership that no risk is worth taking. Reinforce this with employees, mandate policies and practices that reduce risk to virtually zero. As an example, for employees that must take public transportation home, institute a policy where they can expense their taxi rides home.

This will go a long way and will say to all employees and followers that no risk is worth taking, and this example will likely translate into the risk tolerance of other aspects of the lives of families and communities.

4. Be vulnerable

Being selectively vulnerable is effective in all forms of leadership whether in crisis or not. Being vulnerable in a mega-crisis creates the connective tissue between you and employees and followers to effectively transfer influence.

For example, let employees and followers know that you are struggling with your family, friends and community as well. Share that you and your family had gone to the stores and purchased a responsible amount of supplies. Share that you now have hand sanitizers as a part of your day, and share that your relatives are concerned too, and that you are learning as fast as you possibly can to ensure that you can lead.

This small act of being vulnerable and sharing will build the connective tissue with you and your employees and followers that will last way beyond the mega-crisis.

5. Do not commercialize it

This might be the toughest suggestion. Many on your executive team will rush to make a mega-crisis a “brand moment.” And in many cases, you will have a legitimate reason to share how great your company is, and how you are now giving your software away for free to help emergency workers.

By all means help, share, and donate. But, work with your team to let them know that this is not a brand moment. Let your employees and followers know that this is not the time to “generate a buzz” because not only is it inconsistent with your corporate values, it is inconsistent with your personal values.

Ask your employees and followers to do things to help, not because you can tell the world about it, but because you can tell their children and families about it.

6. Do the unexpected

Here is an easy one. Most of your employees and followers just saw their retirement investments drop by 30-40% over the past two weeks. This type of mental strain can undermine a person, their family, and their ability to focus on work.

Offer everyone a small coronus, a coronavirus bonus. This is doing the unexpected. It can be as small as $250, just to say “hey, we are not sure how bad things are going to be, and while I know this is not much, let’s start recognizing that these times are not normal”. Your employees and followers will be shopping more, paying more for childcare, using more electricity and water, and likely worried about the state of the financial markets.

Challenge yourself to not turn this one into a brand moment.

7. Focus on the small things

As a leader you focus on vision, strategy, and execution. It is your currency to be the big thinker. During a mega-crisis this is still important, but in addition you must also be the small thinker. Your words matter. Use them to reiterate the importance of washing hands, staying at home, sanitizing where necessary, and being prepared.

This may sound a bit 1980s but a 1-800 number for employees and followers to call, establishing a person per country to lead in disseminating information, and reiterating that the employee wellness lines are still and always will be open. These are the small things in non-crisis times, but they are the only things in times of crisis, especially in a global mega-crisis.

8. Point to credibility

Leaders tend to have all the answers. During this time, be the marshal of the answers not the source. Point to credible sources, identify meaningful information. Be sure to instill confidence and hope, and at the same time point to the World Health Organization, the respective government authorities, and other resources that can cut through the noise.

For example, I was able to find the Worldometer website which offers a nearly real time count of coronavirus cases, deaths and recoveries globally. I had never known of the Worldometer website before, and when shared with employees, followers, friends and families it served to bring order to chaos. I could have had points of views and opinions that mattered, but this was not the time. This was the time for credibility in information.

Resist the urge to add credibility to your instincts or opinions as a leader during these times. Instead, point to credible sources, this is different.

9. Offer personal help

You are a master at offering corporate help. You have approved a collaboration tool for everyone, your teams have been sent a best practices white paper on working from home, your employees have been given gloves and hand sanitizers, and you have a hotline for folks to call.

These are all very good forms of corporate help. An example of personal help is to recognize that physical isolation is difficult and open a video call for one hour per day where any employee or follower can join in and talk with you and others that are on the video call. Another example might be to suggest family meet-and-greet video calls, many employees and followers would have never met each other’s families. What a great time to meet the families of your colleagues, while the kids are at home, and the home is in complete chaos.

Personal help: it’s time to channel Gandhi, King, Parks, Lincoln and others. The stakes are that high, and your leadership should rise to meet them.

10. Cater to the least fortunate

Last, and certainly not least. Over time, pandemics have proven to be great mirrors of humanity. During a mega-crisis the least fortunate, are the most unfortunate. Be sure to speak to, and cater for those that might not have a car to drive home and hence have to go into a crowded bus, be sure to speak to and cater for those that might not be able to afford childcare.

When you open a call, let folks know that you expect to hear the family in the background, the dog barking, or the doorbell ringing. Not everyone has an office to work in from home.

Be an effective crisis leader. The world needs leadership now, and it needs it from you.