Leadership is not only a privilege, it’s a role that involves significant responsibilities at the best of times. With the COVID-19 pandemic confronting us, many leaders are carrying massively increased burdens—caring for their teams, figuring out new ways to work, and trying to keep businesses afloat amidst economic upheaval. One of the best ways for leaders to meet that challenge is to develop and deploy the inner strength of resilience, which is the ability to survive and thrive in the face of adversity.

In another post, I suggest resilience principles that can help all of us face the challenges ahead. These principles drew on research from Resilient New Zealand on the experiences of businesses and leaders in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes. In this post, I want to build on the principles and develop strategies to help the leaders among us who are bearing the brunt of the challenge facing New Zealand, and Scott Pilkington has also written elsewhere about resilience for businesses and the importance of adaptability during the pandemic.

I suggest that leaders who are resilient and who lead effectively in these times should:

  1. Protect their ability to provide good leadership: Leadership isn’t mechanical, it’s a continual exercise in judgment and discretion, especially in new and unprecedented situations. So leaders need to protect their ability to lead well, for example, by talking to a coach or a mentor who can provide a good sounding board and help them maintain proper perspective. You might need to self-isolate, but don’t isolate yourself from others’ advice.
  2. Be creative: This is a time to be generative, not passive. Actively seek out new ideas and opportunities, and create a culture that allows the best ideas to emerge no matter where they come from.
  3. Be humble: In the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes, “new leaders … emerged,” people who “thrive in disaster and recovery situations [because] they are in their element in times of chaos and uncertainty.” Make space for those new leaders to emerge and to assume responsibilities.
  4. Be decisive and also ready to change course: According to Resilient New Zealand, “In a complex and dynamic environment, decisions sometimes have to be made on the limited information available. It is important to keep making decisions and ensure they can be quickly altered if proven to be wrong or ill-guided.”
  5. Be self-aware: We all have strengths and weaknesses, and leaders should be willing to get help with their weaknesses, preferably before they really need it. For example, if you have a tendency to anxiety, make sure you have appropriate support in place so it doesn’t colour your decision-making.
  6. Be flexible: “Resilience is 50% planning and 50% agility,” says Resilient New Zealand, so “it is impossible to plan for all eventualities given the range and unpredictable nature of natural disasters. The reality is that businesses need to be able to react – often quickly – to a complex and changing set of conditions, in an unstable environment, that may be unlike anything they have considered before.”
  7. Put people first: Leaders have responsibility for others. That means that people are your first priority, and the best way to lead them is to serve them. This is the right thing to do, and it also has positive consequences, with Resilient New Zealand finding that, “those that work with their people as they adjust their lives after a disaster will receive increased commitment which will, in turn, help the organisation’s performance.”
  8. Be clear on priorities: Review the essentials for your team and organisation, and think about how to pursue them in a changing environment. These essentials might be your business purpose, the identity and needs of the clients you serve, or what drew you to this leadership role in the first place.
  9. Think long-term: Leaders have to respond to short-term issues, but they also need to have the long-term future of the team and the organisation in mind. Unless it’s a matter of immediate survival, leaders should try to avoid making decisions now that will undermine their organisation’s future prospects, especially if short-term decisions mean underinvesting in the things that will support an eventual recovery.
  10. Be collaborative: Foster a culture of open discussion and sharing, including welcoming healthy disagreement. Leaders who do this find it is the best way to generate new ideas, unearth insights and secure a team’s commitment and buy-in. It also generates trust in their leadership.
  11. Avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy: Processes matter, but you may need to do things differently. In Canterbury, “after the earthquakes many resources were secured and projects were started with a phone call or a handshake. A few things inevitably went wrong but the vast majority of people did the right thing, allowing the immediate response and recovery to get moving and creating a sense of momentum in the community.”
  12. Stay current with reputable resources: Leaders need to know how the environment is changing around them and guide and protect their team accordingly, for example, to meet health and safety obligations. Identify and following reputable sources of information, like covid19.govt.nz, and avoid unreliable sources like social media.
  13. Get advice from experts: Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and get the guidance they need from people who know what they’re doing. For example, if you’re an employer you should make sure you know where to go for expert advice on your obligations to your employees.
  14. Communicate, communicate, and communicate with their team: Leadership is about inspiring others so that they follow you, and this requires communication. Leaders have to invest heavily in connecting with their team to win their trust and confidence, and provide appropriate direction. According to Resilient New Zealand, “you can’t over communicate” in times like these.

Times of adversity can also be times of growth. No doubt COVID-19 will bring many dark days, and we will all need to find new resilience to move forward. If we, and especially our leaders, can do this, then we have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

If you’d like to build your resilience as a leader, feel free to get in touch to see how we can help you, whether that’s with coaching and mentoring, advice on identifying your priorities and refining them in this changing environment, or to develop and deploy any of the other resilience strategies above.

Alex Penk

Alex Penk

Strategy Partner

Alex is an experienced leader and strategist, skills he honed during his six years as CEO of the independent public policy think tank, Maxim Institute. He led Maxim through a period of significant change to generate real results—new and effective strategy, an increased budget, a cohesive team, and a larger public presence. He joined Resonance in March 2020 and brings a wealth of real-world experience in successful organisational transformation.

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