If someone had asked me a year ago ‘what is the worse that could happen while you lead a major organisation?’ my answer would have been ‘people not engaging with our plans and vision’. Dealing with the consequences of a pandemic was the last thing on my mind. The unpredictability, suddenness and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic all contribute in making a black swan event.
It was an immense privilege and honour for me to lead Toastmasters District 91 during the pandemic from March to June. I have learnt a lot from this experience and for better or worse, crisis leadership new features in my leadership toolbox.
Here’s are some of my reflections on leadership during a crisis.
A crisis may trigger an emotional roller-coaster ride
At the start of March, everything was almost normal and while possible impacts of COVID-19 had been discussed at an event with the wider team. The expectation was that ‘business as usual’ would continue for quite some time. However, things changed very quickly after this and some impacts started to materialise later, especially regarding an event planned for early May. This is when the difficult decision to ask our organisation to move all of its activities online was made. From the moment this decision I made, normality stopped and the priority was to manage the immediate transition. This kept me and everybody else focused and culminated in an extraordinary team meeting to discuss the situation and make some key decisions. To me at least it is only once these decisions were made that their consequences sunk in.
Moreover, a lot of normal activities stopped at the same time as the whole country went into lockdown. It may seem strange but losing the routine and time constraints imposed by frequent travelling felt weird as I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Sadness and anger kicked in as I felt as if the virus was robbing the team from its chance at having a year of glory. It felt as if all the hard work of the previous months vanished in an instant and COVID-19 laying waste to carefully laid plans and projects.
Conversations with mentors and friends perked me up and I eventually started to approach the problem differently. Eventually, I felt in control of the situation and of my emotions and looked forward to tackling a new and unexpected challenge. The whole situation demonstrated why leadership is hard and also why leaders must have peer-mentors and a support network to rely upon.
Acting quickly makes a difference
The last few months confirmed my view that strong leaders must be decisive and not afraid to take unpopular decisions. In the early part of my leadership journey, I often heard that autocratic decision making was bad and that leaders were only “servants” whose sole purpose was to support and act de concert with others. Yet in a crisis, people always look up to their leaders for advice, guidance and support. In this situation, delegating decision-making or not acting decisively enough can have severe unintended consequences.
The situation I was dealing with in early March was a classic case of “dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t”. Delaying the decision to move the activities of 182 clubs and close to 6,000 members online would have meant reacting to events. By sticking to business as usual for another week or even another ten days, several things would have happened. Firstly, questions would have been raised as to why we weren’t limiting activities and why we weren’t taking the situation seriously. Secondly, the probabilities of members of the organisation catching the virus would have increased significantly. Thirdly we would have been forced to react to events such as Government announcements as opposed to pre-empting them and being prepared in return. Equally, acting quickly meant having to face accusations of panicking and of not providing enough support for a difficult transition to online as opposed to physical operations.
The decision to act quickly on decisively in early March was controversial in some parts of the organisation but proved to be the correct one. The message was broadcasted loud and clear for all to see, “move your meetings online” and within the space of days, the entire organisation moved online. The transformation was so complete that some visits that I had scheduled for the week after the announcement took place as planned online.
At the same time as clubs moved online, key decisions were made to move major events online and existing campaigns were modified to suit the new circumstances. Within a week of the announcement to move all activities online, we were thriving in a brave new world of online meetings, Zoom breakout rooms and online events attended by hundreds of members.
It is interesting to observe that the countries that weathered the pandemic and crisis best, New Zealand and Taiwan are amongst those who acted quickly and early as this paper makes clear.
Communication is leadership’s best companion
When I started my leadership journey, I often heard that to become a better leader I had to become a better listener. One thing that was never emphasised was the importance of communication. This happened despite of being part of an organisation whose’ aim is to help individuals become better communicators. Over the years, I ended up taking a different direction and going against a lot of this advice. As soon as I acquired senior and executive-level leadership responsibilities, I became far more active on the communications channels I had access to. I additionally created my communication channels to spread the word about the initiatives I was running and share information to our leaders amongst our ~180 clubs.
The current crisis proved the wisdom of these decisions. To put it simply, it meant that cascading news that we had to move our operations online was easier than it could have been. Having a presence on multiple communication channels from newsletters, to WhatsApp, to Slack and social media also meant that information would be received by almost everybody.
In times of crisis, people will turn to their leaders for answers, guidance and motivation. This is a tribal reflex and similar to the way children run towards their parents when they’re afraid. This is completely natural and something that leaders must anticipate and accept. Having a listening ear and plenty of empathy will help. But it can only augment and not replace communications coming from the top about what is happening and how the consequences of the crisis can be mitigated.
How should leaders communicate during a time of crisis? Honestly and openly. There is no point in avoiding or diminishing the challenges of the current situation. There is also nothing wrong about showing some vulnerability and admitting that the situation you might be facing is unprecedented. Being upbeat is very important too, something I often did over the spring was the share success stories from clubs performing extremely well in our new environment against all odds. It is also very important to convey information and success simply and clearly. My catchphrase of “Toastmasters carried on meeting while McDonald’s stopped serving” was cheesy but conveyed the point well.
A crisis is a test of leadership
Being a leader during a pandemic tested my leadership abilities. I take immense pride in the fact that my organisation moved online in a matter of days once instructions to do so were issued. It wasn’t easy but we made it together and rose to the challenge. At the same time and while we managed to achieve prestigious awards despite of the circumstances, the pandemic meant the end of any hopes of achieving even more accolades.
I will be covering crisis leadership and communication in an online world in more details in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more.