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Crisis-time leadership

On March 14th, 2020, we put down some thoughts for our entrepreneurs – encouraging a doubling down on core values, when it comes to their customers and employees, keeping in mind their organization itself. 

This letter articulated an immediate agenda in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic due to COVID 19. Since then, we have set up a COVID Resource Center which, in the coming days and weeks, will explore specific challenges that organizations will face – and the framing questions that could be useful. 

Even though our history is replete with many examples of pandemics, this is an event of a lifetime for all of us. It is existential, it is global in nature, and it has profound implications – personally, professionally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc. In addition, we are probably entering into a new long term cycle (not just the boom and bust cycles we see every few years) – and there will be important changes (good and not so good). While, in this world of instant gratification, we love checklists (7 Ps, 3 Cs and 4 Qs) and frameworks, internally we have been talking (and reflecting) about the idea of leadership as a journey, beyond a “to do” checklist of items (which are more relevant in the context of specific areas of execution). This is what we have distilled – reflections that are relevant for any of us at a personal level and organizationally, irrespective of role and seniority:

Taking care of ourselves first

We cannot get our organizations to where we need to go if our mindspace is occupied elsewhere. Therefore, first and foremost, all of us must focus on our health – and that of our families, neighbours, friends, the close knit communities we are part of, and our support systems at home and at work.  It’s fine to be selfish or “self regarding”. Our first “call to action” should be to think through what will happen if we, or a member of our family or a close friend, falls ill. Perhaps someone has a pre-existing condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus. Knowing that those closest to us are safe, will give us the energy and focus to lead. 

Augmenting leadership styles

An important question to ask ourselves is if we can augment the default settings of our leadership styles. Build new muscle memory!! Our core strengths, our historical defaults will not fail us, but we need to consciously attempt to step out of our comfort zones, go beyond our natural strengths, broaden our limits –  in order to start recognizing new patterns, new possibilities, which are the need of the hour. For example, if we were data driven in the past, let’s try and listen to our gut, our instincts, our feelings – and vice versa. If we like being the first word in discussions, let’s try to be the final word – and vice versa. If we like giving people a long rope, can we be a demanding leader – and vice versa.  

Who Leads?

This is the tough one. If we find ourselves unable to get to a place of relative comfort on both the above points, we must consider if there is someone better placed to lead in the current circumstances. There is no rule-book – and we need to forget many of the wonderful books on management and leadership. Most of them are relevant for “peacetime” leaders, and even if they are written for “wartime” business leaders, they are usually focused on competition and market differentiation. We are dealing with neither “peacetime” or “wartime” here – we need “crisis-time” leadership. 

Learning and Adopting

We need to internalize that our role models are changing – from top down (mostly failures) to grounded leaders, even hyper local leaders (people we know or a degree of separation from us). From inspirational leaders to execution oriented leaders, even anonymous leaders in healthcare, teaching, small businesses, waste and sanitation. And so if the old rules and old role models are no longer relevant, listen carefully, shamelessly learn and adopt good ideas and good frameworks from others (wherever they come from).

Outcomes, Outcomes, Outcomes

We need to play football and not cricket. One of the big differences between the two games is the role of the coach, who obviously does not play. In football, he is the decision maker – responsible for strategy and determining who the playing 11 are. In cricket, the coach supports the captain of the team, who is the ultimate decision maker. So we are coaches and responsible for outcomes, more than ever. Irrespective of individual personality and style, we need to lead through persuasion (we need not be in the thick of execution), with toughness and with empathy that is dispassionate. This will also require us to revisit our old playing 11, who may have been recruited (even a few days ago) in “peacetime”, for example. We will need a mix of generalists who can double up in different roles and specialists, who are also “self regarding”, can switch leadership styles, are effective in “crisis-time” and entrepreneurial enough to share in our desire for outcomes. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Even if over-communication is disliked. The people that matter (our customers first) will remember our actions. It is not just the decisions that we take during this time that will determine if we made a difference, but decisions we have taken in the past and decisions we will take when this is over. So we must communicate the past (that was more stable), the chaotic present and the ambiguous future – to continue demonstrating collective purpose.  

To conclude, we cannot afford to retreat to where we feel safe. In this world of physical distancing, let’s recognize our privilege and our responsibility to underserved communities.  We can distance, because we have homes. We can distance, because our jobs can be done at home. Healthcare workers cannot stay at home. The poor need to earn a livelihood – and if our distancing means they have no livelihood, they start the long walk back home (as seen in some parts of India). We must keep possession of the ball as much as possible till there is an opening to score. Control what we can control, recognize that survival can be a win and create opportunities for our customers with a sense of urgency. There is no checklist and neither is there a “right” style or personality, or indeed a “right” decision. Leadership in these times is personal and local.