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Leading In Times Of Crisis

  • Ellipse 3

    Aephoria Partners

    14 Apr 2020

“……to be leaders for this time of profound disruption, [we must] reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.  I know it is possible to experience grace and joy in the midst of tragedy and loss. I know it is possible to create Islands of Sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas. I know it is possible because I have worked with leaders over many years in places that knew chaos and breakdown long before this moment. And I have studied enough history to know that such leaders always arise when they are most needed.  Now it’s our turn.”

Margaret J. Wheatley, Who Do We Choose To Be? (2017)

Our current context

In her 2017 book, Margaret Wheatley asked us, who do we choose to be as leaders at a time of crisis and breakdown?  That time has come. Covid-19 is upon us, and it is a serious health disease for the elderly and the vulnerable, but it is an economic and social disease for everyone. As a result, our organisations will not be the same again.  The current crisis is forcing us to radically adjust how we live, how we work and how we relate to one another. Our immediate response now, in these initial weeks of lockdown, will dictate what kind of organisations and workforces we will come back to once the virus has abated and the lockdown has ended.

There are also numerous possibilities and opportunities in this context, and the extent to which organisations will survive, thrive and take those opportunities will be largely shaped by the psychological well-being of our leaders and managers. We must therefore immediately prioritise the mental health of our workforces, starting with our leaders and senior managers who often take significant strain and are responsible for many of the key decisions.  We must also look after those colleagues who are most vulnerable and ‘at-risk’ from a mental health perspective. And all of this comes before we even start to consider how people will re-engage with organisations post-crisis.

Mental health matters

Even before the Coronavirus emerged as a major existential threat, bringing immediately elevated levels of depression, anxiety and anguish, there was a dip in global wellness as noted by Zurich Insurance Group in its 2019 Global Risks Report.  The report highlights that the disorders showing the greatest increase include depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia (Marsh & McLennan Companies, 2019).  Recently, burnout has been added to the WHO disease classification system and recognised as a mental health concern (GMA, 2019). 

The 2017 Gallup Negative Experience Index which provides insight into the world’s emotional state recorded the highest ever levels of stress, sadness, anger, worry and physical pain.  The data are drawn from 154,000 people in 145 countries. According to the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, 2017 was the saddest year yet, with people across globe experiencing record high levels of stress (Daily Mail Online, 2017). 

And with Covid-19, it is more important now than ever to safeguard mental health and to make the development of workforce maturity and resilience a core focus of every organisation that is interested in survival and success.  It should not be underestimated how quickly the potent combination of anxiety, stress and isolation could lead to an existential crisis of psychological dis-ease across our workforces.

What we are seeing in organisations right now

Every day, we are in conversation with our networks of clients and practitioners across the world. Across our networks, we are seeing the following responses to Covid-19 from a leadership and management perspective:

  • A greater focus placed on corporate wellness programmes….and then a realisation that wellness programmes alone are not sufficient to cope with the scale and severity of the mental health challenges of this time
  • Workaholism – a driven, crisis management-oriented response to Covid-19; or…
  • ….an inability to work – people can’t focus and so are unproductive
  • A struggle amongst leaders and managers around giving up control and a search for new ways to keep control to safeguard quality and performance
  • Under-developed skills to lead, manage and participate in online environments, particularly around how to create an inclusive online culture, often in the face of social and resource disparities
  • Junior staff who are anxious about pay and job security.  Middle, Senior and Executive managers who are carrying a huge burden of responsibility, high workload, stress and anxiety
  • A realisation in countries currently in lockdown that the initial period is unlikely to be long enough to halt the spread of the virus…..and the uncertainty that this brings
  • Free floating anxiety which is interfering with focus, performance and team cohesion and solidarity

Crisis management mode is neither helpful nor effective

Leadership and management in this time relies on personal resilience, adaptability, agility, empathy, tolerance and groundedness. As we begin a prolonged adjustment to the “new normal,” responsible, thoughtful leaders must prepare for a significant shift in operational priorities.  Ways of leading and managing will need to be reviewed and adapted to this extraordinary and unprecedented crisis.

We are in this for the long haul.  Being in “crisis management mode” is not helpful and will not be sustainable.  Over time, leaders and managers who try to “push through” will become less and less effective.  A belief that only the numbers, targets, revenues and tangibles count is misguided, for if the inner world of the person in charge of the numbers and targets is in turmoil, the likely outcome is impaired decision-making and underperformance.

Getting caught up in the drama in a reactive way will not serve us, nor our colleagues, our families and our organisations.  Actions and decisions that emerge from fear and anxiety are unlikely to be effective. We must therefore look after and prioritise the mental health of our people.

What this means for leadership and management

To maximise leadership and management effectiveness to carry ourselves and our organisations through the coming months we must prioritise, grow and develop a different range of skills and qualities to navigate this crisis.  Amongst them are:

  1. Fit your own mask first before helping others….

……as we are reminded every time we board a flight.  Leaders need to look after their own wellbeing in order to serve others and operate optimally.  Under prolonged stress and fatigue, our judgment, strategic thinking and rationality can deteriorate and cloud complex decisions.  Self-care and psychological support for leaders and their people are essential to ensure we all emerge from this crisis with greater strength and resolve

  1. Remember you are human

Unsurprisingly during a crisis, many leaders and managers fail to recognise the real impact and cost of anxiety, stress and fatigue.  Ironically, the common perception that leadership in crisis requires tireless engagement and ceaseless energy may directly contribute to reduced effectiveness as decision-makers and as role models. 

  1. Prioritise your self-care and model sustainable behaviour

Since this pandemic broke, we have been watching most leaders and managers become excessively driven; first to be online, last to log off, emails sent during the night.  Whilst this demonstrates commitment, what is the cost? Often, it’s patience, clear-headedness, rationality and empathy. At the very time people need leaders and managers to demonstrate these qualities the most, they will be least accessible to them.  Not only that, direct reports will also start to believe that driving themselves in a similar way to the leader/manager is what’s required. This can only result in mass burnout, which minimises output and elevates anxiety and depression. Let’s remember, this is probably going to be a marathon and not a sprint.

  1. Learn how to be more open

Old-style leaders and managers suppress feelings, but this is an ineffective and harmful approach, particularly at times of crisis.  True leadership in a crisis demands a new level of vulnerability and emotional literacy. People want to be led by humans, not machines.  As employees grapple with fear, anxiety and uncertainty at home and at work, they want to know that their leaders and managers are feeling similar emotions.  It would, frankly, be odd for a leader in such extraordinary circumstances to carry on as if it’s “business as usual” (an often-quoted mantra that can only get us into more trouble in a crisis).  Leaders often don’t know how to be vulnerable – and now is the time to develop this skill.

Prioritising our people during the crisis

In our experience, the following 3-step process is highly effective in safeguarding the psychological wellbeing of leaders and managers in times of great volatility and uncertainty:

Leading in times of crisis steps

Interventions to enable survival of the crisis

In practical terms, the three-step process outlined in the previous slide means that at least three interventions are immediately required.  We are currently engaged in rolling these interventions out in organisations around the world.  

  1. Attend to the immediate need for individual support for mission-critical and high-risk leaders and managers who are taking the most strain (and will mostly be trying not to show it)
  2. Learn and develop skills around leading and managing in an online environment
  3. Initiate a framework to develop team solidarity to help teams, groups and committees to navigate and survive the crisis.

The extent to which organisations focus on one, two or all three will be context dependent.

Aephoria offers the following interventions in support of our clients during this time:

  1. One-on-one support packages for executives and distressed, high-risk leaders and managers
  2. Online skills programmes for leading in an online world
  3. Team solidarity development sessions for Executive teams and functional leadership teams
  4. Online accreditation sessions in our assessment tools to support practitioners with a focus on enneagram and identity maturation.

At Aephoria we thrive and deliver our best work when operating in complex, tricky, high-pressure organisational systems at times of crisis.  We understand how to create safety in order to allow people to share what’s really going on inside themselves, their departments and their teams. We also know when ‘tough love’ is useful to unearth and manage hidden dynamics.

The Aephoria team is mature, we tread lightly on the world, and we don’t make assumptions.  These are critical qualities to deliver success in sensitive environments and in the extraordinary context we now find ourselves in.  

We are also trained psychotherapists, coaches and counsellors.  This means that we can act as an early warning system for the organisation concerning vulnerable people, because we can recognise, navigate and flag a full range of psychological symptoms and pathologies.

By Simon Kettleborough