As New Zealand begins a four-week lockdown to avoid the spread of COVID-19, businesses will have to adapt to radically new settings.
Just hours before the lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a state of emergency and issued an epidemic notice to give authorities further enforcement powers to make sure people follow the lockdown rules.
Competent leadership will be vital during the coronavirus crisis, and businesses and the service sector will play a crucial role. But few people have previous experience of such a complex crisis situation.
Principles and priorities
Like other leaders, these people competently perform all the core functional tasks in a crisis, such as ensuring supply chains, securing premises and setting up processes to maintain operations.
The main difference is that these highly effective leaders are using a set of principles. When they are thrown into unfamiliar situations, they use these like a moral compass to guide them. Each crisis is different, and crises evolve rapidly, but these leaders use their principles to craft specific responses for different situations and stages. Using those principles means their functional activities perform better.
The principles themselves aren’t new. The real difference is that these leaders make them a priority. They are intentional and persistent in living them out in practice. The combined effect of having clear principles, prioritising and intentionally implementing them makes these leaders different.
Here are five principles our research identified:
1. Employee-centric approach
Staff are a priority for effective leaders. They tune in to how workers are thinking and feeling in a crisis, they keep watching changes, and they respond to concerns.
In the current situation, employees’ health and job security are obvious anxieties. Workers will need to know their leaders are genuinely concerned for their well-being as they juggle work, childcare and running households during the lockdown.
Social connections, and the support from leaders and coworkers are important, and good leaders will work with staff to find creative ways to have person-to-person and team connections. They’ll also keep checking in to monitor how those are working.
In previous localised crises, leaders have tried to minimise job losses, provided flexible compassionate leave, and found ways to reduce the stress from higher workloads during staff shortages.
2. Quality communication
More effective leaders are dedicated to personal communication with their staff. They keep people constantly informed and are transparent, without causing information overload. They are deliberately visible, proactively getting out and seeing staff. They keep the volume of written communications manageable.
But communication is a two-way process. Effective leaders listen to their staff and remain non-judgemental. When workers know they can genuinely raise issues and see a response, they feel valued and engaged.
3. A common vision
These leaders focus on setting out a clear, shared vision and a sense of purpose, beyond day-to-day routines. They also keep reframing the situation, as the crisis progresses, so that teams can see what is needed in each stage, and move their attention to those issues.
Rather than micromanaging teams, these leaders extend the trust relationship by empowering them. Teams know they can be innovative, but still access the leader for advice and support.
4. Collaboration and networking
More effective leaders deliberately network and collaborate with a range of people. This goes beyond good teamwork, deliberately breaking down barriers across the organisation and reaching out to outside organisations. In a crisis, good leaders use these networks to initiate forums for sharing ideas and accessing resources.
5. Personal and organisational learning
Curiosity and a desire to keep learning are part of good leadership. Crises are changing rapidly and leaders have to make decisions with limited information. Effective leaders act as hosts, so that a wider pool of people can share information to contribute to decisions. Their organisations quickly see new insights and possibilities, and take on board new ways of working.
In this way, the leaders and their teams can be more strategic, anticipating changes, opportunities and threats, and be better in planning for them.
At a personal level, these leaders know the importance of looking after themselves and their family. They learn to plan for their own well-being and act as a role model for their staff. They choose to have down time and use their own supports during the ongoing pressure.
These five principles were crucial in the crises we studied. They are likely to be crucial in the current setting. The coronavirus crisis will have many stages, right through to longer-term economic effects. It will be an incredibly turbulent time, but leaders who work in these ways are likely to ride the storm best.
Bernard Walker, Associate Professor in Organisations and Leadership, University of Canterbury and Tracy Hatton, Principal Consultant Resilient Organisations and Adjunct Fellow, University of Canterbury