How many times today have you checked your WhatsApp, your Instagram or Facebook feed, perhaps Twitter or the local news for more information about Covid-19? Five? Ten? Twenty or more? This is a clear indication that during times of crisis we crave information. We are hungry for clarity, for direction and for leadership.
The core to effective leadership during times of crisis is communication. Whether in the business, political and social sphere, now is not the time to stay silent. Everyone with the capability and capacity, as well as the platform and profile, to offer solace and solutions should be speaking up.
This has certainly been the approach adopted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Dean, Nicola Kleyn, who, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, led the school through limiting and vetting access to the campus from 16 March, closing the campus on 24 March, and migrating all learning to existing online channels. In a recent conversation about crisis leadership, she told me: “In addition to taking their organisations forward and amping up their communication, leaders need to constantly think about how to reach those who may need special attention.” This is particularly true in the South African context, which opens up myriad hurdles to effective connection.
“This list is long but might include employees who can’t access online communications easily, those who are running households solo (either on their own or with young kids), those who are medically vulnerable or have such individuals in their household, as well as those who have battled mental illness in the past,” Kleyn said. “It’s especially important for leaders to ensure that someone is paying special attention to these individuals and preferably making one-on-one voice contact with them every day.”
During times of extraordinary uncertainty, people want contact and insights, they crave some degree of certainty and they are looking for role models. This puts overwhelming pressure on leaders who themselves are trepidatious about the future, but must still marshal all their internal resources and abilities. Sometimes they too need some direction.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, our Coaching@GIBS experts and members of the business school’s leadership faculty have taken to the digital space to continue their work with leaders and their teams, helping them to navigate an extraordinary situation impacting lives, businesses and the economy.
Drawing on the conversations being had with South African business leaders, managers and executives, 19 of our faculty outlined their top insights for leading from the epicentre of a crisis, tips which apply to heads of global multinationals, small family-run business, franchises or teams being impacted by remote work and the strangeness of physical distance.
Be clear, calm and consistent
Time and again our experts come back to the importance of truthful, frequent and non-alarmist communication in the face of a crisis such as Covid-19. This can be challenging with information updating rapidly and bombarding us from all directions, but being clear and honest – even if that means having to say, ‘I do not know at this time’ – is critical to avoiding panic.
“Be realistic not alarmist – [leaders should] equip themselves with the facts from the right sources and share these across all organisational communication platforms,” said one of our coaches, highlighting the difference in approach between South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s measured and deliberate response to the pandemic versus the at-times flippant approach adopted by United States President Donald Trump.
Communication does not have to be fancy or flowery but it does need to “keep employees updated at all times on what the business is doing to manage the crisis”. When things go quiet, people begin to worry, so nip that in the bud by making use of regular updates.
How you communicate is also crucial. “Be human and practice deep empathy,” was one comment, which was reinforced time and again with the advice to “position your thinking within a context”.
Finally, recognising that “no man is an island” is essential to fostering an open and collective leadership approach, supported by managers and leaders you trust. “Together you can do far more than anyone can do on their own,” stressed one of our coaches.
Focus on the common good
This strong theme permeated the feedback received from our coaches, underlining that during challenging times it is important to make decisions for the common good with human wellbeing at the core.
One powerful comment was: “Don’t maliciously exploit this crisis. For example, it is not a time to downsize the workforce because it is something they have always wanted to do. [It is about being] creative and following social capital models. Employment will be great focus after this passes.”
The common good extends beyond the business family to the entire community and country. “The context of the whole is the more important than the individual – we need to work together to solve this,” was one comment.
This form of leadership was on display recently in an open letter from the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which was shared on the BBC World Service. Johnson Sirleaf praised world leaders who responded to West Africa’s 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and called for solidarity and collective action to tackle Covid-19. “Every person, in every nation, needs to do their part,” was her call to action.
Focus attention on navigating the immediate threat
It goes without saying that leaders should be strategic and respond to a crisis with the future in mind, but they also need to act in-the-now while “avoiding reactive responses”. Other suggestions from our experts included: “Look for ways to adapt and implement innovation”; “dive in and find your differentiator [reinvent the business while the playing fields are level]”; and “make short-term sacrifices to survive and thrive for the long term”.
During times of crisis, it is vital that leaders are realistic and honest about the immediate impacts that will be felt by their businesses and their people. Yes, search for creative solutions to keep a business afloat, our experts agree, but above all “face the reality and get to grips with what is really going on. Do not sugar-coat the situation, but do gather facts. Assess the facts and determine how bad it is and then consider the implications.”
If you must make hard decisions, act with empathy and humanity. This was starkly illustrated when Talk Radio 702’s The Money Show aired a conference call between Edcon CEO Grant Pattison and his suppliers in late-March 2020, when Pattison explained the company was unable to honour their accounts. The CEO lost his composure towards the end of the call, as did show host Bruce Whitfield.
An emotional Pattison expressed his gratitude to suppliers and promised to keep them informed. “I hope we will all emerge from this and get a chance to repair the collective economic damage. Management and the board of Edcon wishes you and your employees and your families safe, good health in the upcoming weeks,” he said.
Stand for something
Leadership needs to be a stabilising force during a crisis, with leaders acting as role models. There have been countless examples of this leading from the front during the coronavirus pandemic, with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leading from the front to go into quarantine and self-isolation respectively. On the other side of the coin, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to make utterances such as: “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen.”
Our experts also noted the importance of leaders across society becoming pillars of stability. “In volatile times, stable leaders facilitate trust and optimism in their teams,” was one observation. While another tip was to: “Balance the need to keep learning, absorbing, gaining additional perspectives and information, with the need to be decisive and give concrete direction to people.”
Maintain your own reserves
Lastly, mental health should be key concern for leaders during times of crisis. This means paying attention to their own and others’ emotional wellbeing. Lives have changed overnight, people are struggling financially, are anxious and dealing with unprecedented change. People need to feel they are not alone, said our experts who called on leaders to “listen to understand and facilitate psychological well-being”.
For leaders themselves, taking time to refocus, exercise and making time to share their fears and feelings can be remarkably calming and centering. This is where coaching has a role to play. At this level it is extremely helpful to have a qualified thinking partner with a solid track record in your corner.
Globally-recognised business leaders such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and Alphabet chairman, have both extoled the value of coaching in their time. “We all need people who will give us feedback, that’s how we improve,” said Gates during a 2013 TED talk. While Schmidt highlighted the importance of “another set of eyes” during a 2009 Fortune magazine interview.
And that’s during ‘business-as-normal’ times. What about times of complete global disruption? Times like these, when so much is riding on how you lead. Times that stretch everyday leaders into great leaders.
*Alison Reid is Director: Personal and Applied Learning at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.