Leading Effectively Despite the Unknowns

Part of the difficulty in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis is that nearly six months into it we have almost as many unknowns as we did in the beginning.

  1. Vaccine  As of this time we still don’t know when we’re going to have an effective vaccine that can reduce the mortality rate, whether we’ll have enough to protect the majority of the world’s population, or how long all of that will take.
  2. Therapeutic drugs – We know there are drugs that can reduce hospitalization by several days, but we don’t have one that will reduce the mortality rate.
  3. Immunity – In order to contain the spread of COVID-19 virus we need to reach 60% of what experts call “herd immunity”—the point where the virus can no longer spread widely. But the reality is that vast numbers of people remain vulnerable as the percentage of the total population that has been infected is still in the single digits.

At a time when there are still so many unknowns, it can be extremely difficult for leaders and organizations to make decisions.

In the absence of such critical facts, how can leaders lead effectively?

To me, steering in these uncharted, turbulent times will require a higher level of organizational agility and an expanded set of leadership skills.

Let’s start with increased agility

As some businesses begin to reopen, there is a general sense that things are going to get better over time.

But they may also get worse in some locations. Indeed, there is a possibility of infections spiking in some areas, maybe where you have a call center, or a manufacturing plant.

That’s where agility comes in.

At this point in the crisis you need a contingency plan for both: the reopening of the workplace as well as the possibility of lockdowns in certain areas. As the crisis evolves, you’ll need to keep this plan handy so you can swiftly move people back into the office or back to working remotely again.

Along with that you’ll need a way to deal with the added cyber risk stemming from a large number of people working from remote locations. At the same time, and precisely because of that added exposure, you must have in place a real-time integrated access management system so you can disable a person’s access at a moment’s notice if a security breach is detected.

Finally, your supply chain organization needs to be equally agile. They need to expand the chain of providers not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of geographical locations to avoid disruptions if or when suppliers in one location go on lockdown.

Expanded Leadership Skills

In addition to increased agility, succeeding in this environment will require an expanded set of leadership skills, such as:

Effective virtual management –  Leading in a virtual environment involves more than videoconferences. It requires distributed leadership that can lead and work anywhere using collaboration and data tools to get feedback on how things are getting done.

Empathy – In this crisis environment, and especially if the coronavirus flares up during flu season, it’s going to be imperative for leaders to be more empathetic than ever before to people’s situations and emotional states.

Seasoned leadership – You can read books about leading at a time of crisis; but when you are facing one, you want crisis veterans by your side.  If you run a multinational organization, in particular, it would be extremely useful to you to have people who have experience in dealing with crisis in international settings.

Innovation – I’ve been working with companies that during the course of this crisis that have purchased assets, with companies that have divested assets, and with companies that have continued their M&A activity. This points to my theory that inside every difficulty there is opportunity. Of course, that depends on the company’s financial strength and its overall strategy.  This is an important and timely topic, and I will expand on it in my next article.

Learning from this experience

This is a time for reflection. It’s a perfect time to take inventory of what we learned during these past months, figure out what we can adopt going forward, and unlearn what will be no longer valid in the new normal.

This crisis has shown us we can do things differently and do them quite well.  I encourage you to look at the way you are operating now, learn from this experience, and come out of it stronger than you went into it.

To me, that would be a sign of great leadership.

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