Blog: Leadership in crisis: Lessons from the past


Leadership in crisis: Lessons from the past

There is no rule book for crisis. But leaders of today can take some pages from the journey of leaders from the history of crises and better manage the current pandemic and its impact on people and work.
Leadership in crisis: Lessons from the past

Times of crisis can make or break leadership. Uncertainty, ambiguity, managing anxiety of self and others, finding opportunity in chaos, there is a lot a leader has got to go through and do in times of crisis. Currently the world of work is dealing with one of the greatest crises, a global pandemic, outbreak of COVID-19. The crisis is surely one of its kind but this is not the first time the world is going through a crisis. World wars, recession, great economic depression, and the outbreak of Ebola virus, among others, are some of the other catastrophes leaders from different parts of the world have had to face in the past. 

Some companies and leaders couldn’t cope through these adversities. But then there were others who were much more resilient and dynamic and navigated themselves and their teams through the storm towards a better future. 

The leaders of today can take some pages from the journey of leaders from the history of crises and better manage the current pandemic and its impact on people and work. Whether it is the former U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt who dealt with the banking crisis, Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who survived isolation miles away from civilization with his team of 27 other men, or leaders at IBM, Netflix, GE and Apple that not only survived but thrived at the time of economic recessions.  

Here are some lessons for leaders from the past: 

Clarity and Sincerity

In the gloom of the Great Depression — the unemployment rate was 25 percent in the United States of America and Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. When every bank in America had locked its doors and the crisis was at its peak, Roosevelt was quick to make decisions and communicate the same to everyone with utmost clarity. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in the second volume of his ‘Age of Roosevelt trilogy’ describes, “He dictated his remarks to his secretary, Grace Tully, looking at a blank wall, trying to visualize the individuals he was seeking to help: a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, a man repairing an automobile, a farmer in his field.” 

As Abraham Lincoln also once said, “If given the truth, people can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” For business leaders it is absolutely essential that they bring the real facts to people in this time of crisis and make them part of the process while dealing with this difficult situation. Whether it is Amazon's Jeff Bezos memo to the employees or the heartfelt video message of Marriott's President & CEO Arne Sorrenson, leaders are ensuring that the employees’ anxiety over job security and business continuity is kept in check.

Move in tune with time

One of the most common things among businesses that survived and thrived in crisis has been their ability to quickly adapt to changes. Leaders who have accepted the new ways of living and working in the past have been able to take their company to greater heights. Whether it's IBM that automated most of its processes after The Great Depression or Netflix and Apple that innovated new modes of entertainment. 

The global health crisis looming over the world of work currently has also triggered some new work and business trends. It has accelerated the pace of digitization as most businesses operate remotely, it has shown how some roles can be easily done remotely; further, the tight budgets will lead to leaner teams and probably impact the demand of gig workers as well. The leaders have to quickly acknowledge these new ways and rework on their business and people strategies. 

Grit & Determination

Liberia was experiencing impressive economic growth when the country was hit by a new crisis: the outbreak of Ebola. The economic recovery was smashed and civil society, which was recovering from past horrors, took another blow. It was grit and determination that helped Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female president, lead a whole country through that crisis. All the steps taken to fight the crisis, from writing a letter to the global leaders to educating the entire community about the crisis lay on the foundation of strong grit and determination of Sirleaf to tackle the problem and let it not take over the present and the future of the country. 

Similar grit and determination to save their businesses and employees’ careers is required among business leaders. While firefighting the short-term challenges, they have to continuously work on the bigger picture as well. To ensure that all the employees stay motivated even amid all of this chaos, they have to lead by example and be self-driven to not only save but make their business and talent thrive. 

Coherent culture 

One of the relevant examples in this period of social distancing and isolation is Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer whose ship was locked in the ice in early 1915. His ship sunk, leaving him and his 27 men to fight for survival thousands of miles away from civilization. Our situation is extreme in a very different way. However, there is a key leadership lesson that can be drawn from his story of survival. It was the collective determination he fostered in his men to beat the odds that helped them survive more than 18 months on the ice. Shackleton focused on the engagement, outlook, and cohesion of the team.

To survive the pandemic leaders of today have to work on enhancing collective determination, solidarity, and building a shared purpose among their team. A coherent culture will help dial down fear among employees and ensure less chaos at work.

Finding opportunities in times of crisis

Each crisis brings with it newer opportunities, as old habits get disrupted, people’s mindsets get influenced and lifestyle changes. 

In the Great Depression, General Motors (GM), for instance, acted decisively to savage its cost base, allowing it to cut prices by as much as 70 percent on its top-of-the-range cars. The idea was to align its product offering to a consumer with less money to spend. Hence, GM stole market share and achieved higher margins than Ford on similar products. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will also influence consumer’s spending habits and preferences, the business leaders have to hence closely monitor these changing needs and prepare for them in advance. Although it seems to be unclear when the situation will get better, leaders need to have a plan in place. They have to identify the new business opportunities and ascertain the required skills for materizaling them and prepare their workforce for the same.  

There is no playbook for crisis. No two crises are the same. But each crisis has the ability to transform us and leave lessons for the generations to follow. So take some of these lessons and bring them to practice as you ride along a treacherous path. 

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Topics: Leadership, #LeadTheWay, #COVID-19

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