Five Leadership Steps for Navigating a Disruption

The Coronavirus has created a huge disruption in all our lives. Within the span of just a few weeks, most large economies have executed some form of lockdown, with only essential services in operation and most people confined to their homes. A number of businesses are shutting down either temporarily or permanently, while others are trying to figure out how they can keep running and be ready to bounce back when things ease up. Amid all this, employees and contractors are looking on nervously, wondering what the impact on them might be and how they can help their organization emerge at the other end unscathed. The effects are still percolating through their work and personal lives, with every day bringing new and unanticipated developments.

Navigating this type of rapidly changing and uncertain environment can be quite challenging for any leader. They not only have to rapidly assess the situation and make the course corrections that will keep their business alive, but they also need to shepherd their team through the crisis and hopefully come out stronger at the other end. What are the tactics they can use to navigate a disruption like the one they are experiencing today? Based on learnings from my career, I propose the following five steps that could help.

Set a clear north star. Confusion reigns supreme during a crisis. Leaders can help everyone cut through the noise by getting them aligned around a common mission – a “north star” that guides the organization every day. It should be actionable, unambiguous, very easy to comprehend, and must have 100% buy-in from the top leadership of the organization. It should be regularly communicated to the rank and file and reinforced through a variety of channels. A good example of a north star is “Flatten the curve” which is being used to explain how everyone can contribute to slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. It is easy to understand and allows everyone to get behind it.

Empower the organization. Once a north star has been established, the next step is to empower every single person in the organization to take initiative and contribute actively to driving outcomes.  Since time is of the essence during a crisis, leaders must do everything possible to remove decision layers and increase velocity. Empowerment and autonomy can have a cloning effect – together they create a next line of fast movers that can strongly amplify your ability to deliver results.

Align incentives. In crisis situations, it is very important to ensure that all teams in the organization are marching in lock step towards common objectives. This is a good time to examine incentive structures and ensure that the metrics strongly reward collective success over individual brilliance. Emotions can run high during a crisis and the last thing you need is to have individual silos competing with each other and creating friction that not only slows down the overall organization, but also creates heartburn and saps morale.

Crowdsource data and information. Disruptions and crises are a time of uncertainty. Information is usually scarce and it is impossible for leaders to confidently lean on their past experience to make high quality decisions. Just look at the coronavirus lockdown – due to its unprecedented nature, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming days, weeks and months. The best thing that leaders can do at this time is to actively engage their diverse talent pool and surface as wide a spectrum of ideas as possible. They must then adopt a learning mindset, listen honestly, and select the best ideas for implementation. The beautiful thing about such an approach is that it engages the larger organization in the journey, which in turn creates buy-in and fosters trust.

Inspire the team. Finally, a critical element of leadership is to walk the talk and demonstrate support for the mission through visible energy and enthusiasm. Times of crises can severely test the temperament of a team and they usually look at their leaders to gauge how things are going. Leaders must display empathy, listen patiently, and do everything in their power to inspire their people towards the better future that lies ahead.

The above steps are designed to make an organization coalesce around their leader and use their collective inner strength to power through a crisis. In such times, success is not powered by a superhero who swoops in from the outside and single-handedly saves everyone; it is powered from inside by people who understand the intricacies of the business, care deeply about it, and are inspired by their leaders to collectively navigate uncharted waters and transform themselves for future success.

How is the coronavirus disruption affecting you and your organization? Do you have a clear north star that everyone can work towards? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

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