How to Lead in the COVID-19 Crisis

Leaders must reach out to advisers, take the long view, stay ethical and use technology in innovative ways to navigate through this crisis.

Businesses worldwide are facing new and significant risks due to the pandemic and its many ripple effects. At the same time, work-life has undergone drastic changes -- many have had to shift to remote working overnight or find other inventive ways of getting the job done despite the current situation. In these distressing times, business leaders are dealing not only with significant change but also attempting to navigate an evolving risk landscape. 

Reacting effectively to these changes and risks is absolutely essential, but it is difficult to know what the right reaction is, and many are reacting differently. Some have stayed calm, acting quickly and decisively, while others have failed to act, mishandled things or aggravated the situation by making bad choices. Why do some experienced leaders have this problem or react differently under stress, especially now? 

There are multiple reasons for these differences, and, I'm happy to say, there are also ways to shift to more effectively handle risk and change -- now and into the future.

Why leaders aren’t all on the same page

Decision-making is always somewhat difficult in that it inherently involves uncertainty. But the number of unknowns related to the pandemic means that leaders are experiencing uncertainty more than ever before. They have fewer details and evidence at their disposal to make decisions, and so leaders have to lean heavily on their individual experiences, knowledge and intuition.

Secondly, there’s the matter of time. Leaders are used to being able to evaluate options objectively in a step-based manner, selecting a final choice after good, organized analysis and feedback. Now, the pandemic is forcing leaders to make decisions quickly. They do not necessarily have time to check all the parameters beforehand.

Choices also are more complex for leaders, regardless of whether they have to happen at the local, regional or global levels. Choices can have consequences that are quite significant compared with normal circumstances. And although crisis leadership has always been a valuable skill, most business leaders simply are not prepared for the level of risk-taking and change management capability necessary to respond to the pandemic at a worldwide level, because the COVID-19 crisis is unlike anything most leaders have experienced.

Lastly, current risk management culture is largely defensive rather than opportunistic -- that is to say, most business leaders don’t have the risk management function to drive a culture of resilience and agility. That generally means that leaders react more slowly and in a more limited way to crises. 

See also: Step 1 to Your After-COVID Future  

How to shift to more effective decision-making

Making more effective decisions during COVID-19 and beyond will require leaders to rethink their mental and logistical approach to operations. The first step is to surround yourself with others who have the skills necessary to help you make your choices. Because traditional hierarchical structures will not be self-assured, you must reach out to experts and informed, qualified professionals at every level. Well-rounded insights from a variety of sources will put you in a position to consider options from a broad perspective and to feel confident that you have considered many points of view or potential ramifications.

Leaders also need to commit to maintaining a long-term perspective, even if it means fixing decisions later when new information emerges or the situation changes. This is because the ultimate goal of crisis management isn’t just to get through the crisis -- it’s to recover and thrive well into the future. Leaders have to understand how their choices influence the future path of the company and try to make decisions that offer the right balance of stability and flexibility.

Additionally, situations arising due to the pandemic can naturally present leaders with agonizing moral choices. Companies might have to choose between cutting wages for everyone or paying full salaries and keeping just a portion of their team, for instance. Sometimes crises mean that legislators relax regulations that would keep less scrupulous behaviors at bay -- for example, dumping chemicals, skipping oversight hearings or approving a vaccine without sufficient testing. There are also good examples of leaders supporting the people during this difficult time to draw from, such as CEOs and executives giving up their salaries to redirect funds to their workers. But all leaders should strive to make ethical decisions that are data-driven, address the wellbeing of people and consider those who are most affected by the virus.

Finally, leaders need to embrace the digital future with a focus on building resilience and adjusting to change as quickly as possible. This might look quite different depending on what your company’s mission and industry is. But good examples can include setting up secure remote networks, focusing on business continuity, and even learning to interact virtually with clients for conducting business. As you figure out how technology can serve you to improve both general operations and crisis management, remember that it’s crucial for employees to be able to disconnect for their happiness and health.

See also: We Are Open for Business; Now What?  

Leaders can approach business in a wide variety of ways, which is part of what makes business so exciting. Even so, few leaders are well-positioned to make decisions during and after the pandemic smoothly, as challenges like lack of experience and the sheer complexity of choices create unstable ground.

The bulk of us will need to take deliberate steps to improve the odds that our decision-making will be better. By reaching out to skilled people, maintaining a long-term perspective, dedicating yourself to ethical action, and using technology in innovative ways, you can make judgments to be proud of through this crisis and for years to come.

Priya Merchant

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Priya Merchant

Priya Merchant is a digital transformation and innovation expert with nearly two decades of experience in financial services and insurance with top global organizations across the U.S., U.K., Canada, India and Latam.


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