Leadership in times of crisis: three ways to build resilience

There is no leadership manual for dealing with a once-in-a-century global health emergency—no script to guide what you should say to team members, customers, and stakeholders in your business. 

Right now, everyone’s leadership skills are being tested in ways we could have barely imagined a month ago. It’s not just a question of how resilient our organisations are and how quickly they can adapt to lockdowns and restrictions on travel. It’s a challenge to our resilience as human beings. 

When Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, tweeted the story in recent days of how his business was responding to the Covid-19 emergency, he prefaced his comments with a simple introductory note: “I’m a human. I worry about my family and am deeply concerned about the millions whose jobs and health are at risk.” It was the right starting note.

I’ve always believed that great leadership is forged in the crucible of adversity, but great leaders are those who respond with empathy and vulnerability even when making the toughest decisions. We all need reserves of determination and positivity at precisely the moments those qualities are stretched thin.

Where do those reserves come from? Here are four ways to build resilience:

Own your resilience

Meet one of the most remarkable people I know, Debra Searle. She is a successful entrepreneur, author, and television presenter—and she’s been twice-honoured by the Queen for her achievements in her native UK and beyond. She has a mental toolkit that served her well through one of the toughest tests imaginable: rowing across 3,000 miles of ocean by herself in a boat built for two. 

Debra’s tips range from “running the movie”— visualise yourself confronting and overcoming the challenging times ahead—to choosing your attitude every day.

“This is the one thing I had a choice about,” Debra says. “Every day I made an attitude choice: I said it out loud. It had to be a positive attitude. Negative attitudes were banned on the boat.”

Keep communicating

Keep talking. Keep listening. Our team has been communicating openly on multiple channels as the coronavirus crisis has developed and after the decision to ask staff to work remotely. There are virtual meetings, recorded sessions, emails, and I’ve opened my schedule to anyone in the business to book time for a conversation. And those conversations have ranged from the current crisis, to our customer response, to just having a laugh about our home office hijinks.  

The most important message is how to embrace the ‘“new normal’” for the entire team. We all need to prioritise and support our family during times like these. For some, the new normal might look like two working adults competing for internet bandwidth at home taking turns to respond to the cries of a toddler or two. For others, it might be taking care of at-risk parents or relatives. But whatever the new normal is for each colleague, there’s one thing they all needed to know from their leader: prioritise your family and your wellbeing. If anything has to give in life right now, let it be work.

When it's all done, reflect and learn

When this crisis abates—and it will in time—the temptation is for leaders to rush ahead without a backward glance. But part of resilience is learning lessons. Former US Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis describes this as part of the “Corporate Battle Rhythm”—a full cycle of planning, briefing, execution and debriefing.

“After a mission, we come together immediately in a very hallowed environment where there’s no rank, no blame, no privilege, no seniority, and we sit down and talk unemotionally about the successes and failures of the mission.  It’s important to capture both,” he says.

“The successes because we want to continue to do things that are working and the failures because we can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. If we repeat mistakes in my world it has catastrophic results.” 

And the outcome of a SEAL team’s debrief isn’t just kept within the mission squad. The lessons are open to every SEAL, from the top to bottom rank. “I’m accelerating everyone’s experience, whether they’re going out and doing operations or not,” says Mark.

Take the time to reflect and hold a debrief; no two crises are the same, but there will be lessons to learn from your organisation’s response to Covid-19.

Lead as though your children are watching

In essence, times of crisis challenge leaders to be the best versions of themselves. I’m reminded of an idea that Sean Pederson of Trek Bicycles came up with a few years ago: “Lead as though your children are watching.” It’s great advice. And right now, if you’re reading this while you’re working at home, they probably are.

Alex Shootman is CEO at Workfront


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