Five critical crisis leadership lessons from 2020

Sunil Puri, Head of Research, Innovation and Product Development, APAC at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

As we sail into 2021 and reflect on the year gone by, there are several key learnings that we can take with us from perhaps the biggest crises we have faced in our careers. The combined social, economic, and health crises due to the pandemic has stress-tested organisations, and ‘bruised’ leaders therein. On top of dealing with external leadership crises to keep their businesses afloat, CXOs also needed to manage deep personal leadership crises within as they dug into their ever-so-depleting reserves of emotional energy to motivate themselves and their teams.

Research led by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Leading in a Crisis: From Survival to Strategic Pivot,   articulates the journey leaders need to continue to navigate as they reflect, reset, recalibrate, and pivot to survive and hopefully succeed in the “next normal”. Findings were gleaned from surveying 73 C-Suites leaders and board directors across the Asia Pacific region, including Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and India.

Here are five critical crisis leadership lessons we must take away as we leave the shores of 2020:

1. Build Trust Capital

Trust is the currency of confidence during crises – it enables a leader to buy time. Hence, leaders must invest energy to build trust during peace time in order to be able to withdraw from the “trust account” during crises.

Trust usually warrants some combination of capability, loyalty, and integrity. When leaders display a combination of these traits over time, they develop an authentic relationship with their teams. Then, during tough times, when leaders are expected to make difficult decisions, incremental trust helps them set direction and attain alignment and commitment with their teams. Leaders must not only have a trust balance with their teams, but must also trust their teams during testing times.

Being trustworthy allows leaders to implement ‘unpopular’ decisions, and get a buy-in from their boards or executive teams to pivot and make the most of opportunities that a crisis may put forth.

2. Burn-Bright by Building Resilience Rather Than Burn-Out

All leaders have a finite pool of energy from which they draw energy each time they need an emotional boost. In extended or long-term crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders can feel depleted of their internal energy, which can cause disengagement in their staff.

Once leaders realize that their energy pool is running dry, they can resort to a few activities including exercise, meditation, social pursuits, practicing gratitude, and emotional savoring; all these can help refresh and recharge their energy levels. Some leaders suggested that continual media bombardment of negative news also hastens the energy-depletion process, so cutting off temporarily from negative energy-sapping news may be an idea worth consideration.

3. Flex Your Crises Leadership Muscle

Unfortunately, we may encounter more frequent crisis in the future, so leaders must flex and train their crisis leadership ‘muscle’ by building the right set of capabilities. There are four clusters of capabilities leaders must have that will help them to not only survive but thrive in any crises situation.

One, a high level of self-awareness – being aware of own values and beliefs, as well as strengths and development needs will enable leaders to be effective in a crises situation.

Two, displaying trust and also being trustworthy; trust is often built by being humble, authentic, empathetic towards people, and being vulnerable.

Three, having a growth mindset, often indicated by the ability and willingness of a leader to learn quickly, irrespective of his/her age and level in the organisation. And lastly, four, the ability to handle adversity by keeping calm, being resilient, being agile, being adaptable and being decisive.

4. Hold onto Your Experiences

Leaders must draw parallels between the current crisis and crucible experiences they may have lived through in their careers. They must reflect how the current situation is similar to, and different from, what they may have lived through in the past, and tweak their responses accordingly.

The exercise may trigger clever tactics they could deploy, and give leaders confidence and personal conviction that they have dealt with crises before, and will see the other end of the tunnel on the situation-at-hand. Leaders often play those experiences in their mind to constantly cheer themselves up during moments of despair. Such experiences and resulting self-identity helps leaders maintain strong self-belief and encourages them to think out-of-the-box.

5. Invest in the ‘Right’ Organisation Culture

Success in a crisis hinges on the culture of trust, accountability and risk taking. Organisations with culture that centers on trust and transparency is likely to endure the crises much better than organisations where mistrust is rampant. Culture of accountability is also critical because in a crises situation leaders must take critical calls, and not look up the hierarchy for help.

Finally, organisations that encourage risk taking coupled with psychological safety, are likely to perform better than others in pivoting and making the most of hidden opportunities that a crises situation may present.

While 2020 has caused a lot of adversities, it also presented many opportunities for leaders to stand tall and bring about transformational change. The world witnessed many stories of resilience, grit, agility, and adaptability, as leaders toiled to endure socio-economic adversities. The onus is on the collective leadership community to learn from the successes of 2020, and get smarter to deal with future crises which may confront the world much sooner than we think!