Leadership skills severely tested by pandemic

Crises require leaders who can clearly articulate attainable goals for organisations

One of the ironies of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has created both stasis and change at the same time. On a personal level the virus has kept people locked down in Covid-19 limbo for almost a year while at a commercial level there have been business challenges and organisational disruption on an unprecedented scale.

In the late 1980s the acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) first surfaced in the US army’s management vocabulary to describe a world in a state of flux following the collapse of the USSR. From there it migrated into broader use in a business and leadership context and since the Covid-19 crisis began, the term is once again apposite with the pandemic being likened to VUCA on steroids.

VUCA was based on the theories of US academics, Warren Bennis, a pioneer in leadership thinking and studies and Burt Nanus, professor emeritus of management at the University of Southern California who wrote extensively on leadership issues. In Leaders, Strategies for Taking Charge, they describe leadership as "the marshalling of skills possessed by a majority but used by a minority", and this description appears to have played out during the pandemic as one cohort of leaders sat on their hands and waited for a clarity that never came while the other challenged the pandemic head on with all guns blazing. The problem for those that waited was that by the time they felt able to take action the situation had already moved on, often multiple times, and they were well behind in managing and controlling what had become an escalating crisis.

Bennis and Nanus draw a distinction between leaders and mangers. They describe leaders as people who do the right things, while managers are people who do things right. In times of crises organisations need both, but in particular they need leaders who can clearly articulate attainable goals for their organisation in the given circumstances and keep everyone on message. In Bennis’s view leaders play a crucial role in challenging times, not least because they are the ones who will “continually remind us what is important and why”.

The pandemic turned certainty on its head almost overnight and the organisations that have weathered it well are those whose leaders quickly grasped the reality of the situation rather than downplaying the problems. They have been open with employees and maintained morale without denying or sugar-coating the truth. However, those in the driving seat do not always get things right. Decisions have been made under pressure that seemed optimal at the time but may not look so good when the crisis has passed.

That said, leaders with a resilient and flexible mindset recognised that this was the potential price to be paid and pushed ahead anyway. They spotted and corrected mistakes along the way, they didn’t apportion blame, they accepted criticism and changed course as many times as it took to adapt to the situation. Of necessity leadership becomes an even more iterative process than usual in moments of crisis and all too easily this can be misconstrued as indecisiveness.

‘Unbelievable pressures’

This last year has been very tough on leaders and they deserve a break, says Karan Sonpar, professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD College of Business. "Executives in many organisations are currently facing unbelievable pressures and it isn't easy being at the steering wheel when the ride is so bumpy," he says.

“In addition to being vulnerable humans themselves, they are required to make some impossible choices that impact the financial viability and survival of their organisations. What we now need is enlightened followership that gives some slack to people in leadership roles. Such an approach gives executives the latitude to make decisions and not be paralysed by the fear of zero-error syndrome cultures. Errors of omission due to indecision or fear of being judged too strictly in times of crisis are likely to be more damaging than the exercise of executive discretion. Leadership is all about discretion and errors of judgment in times of crisis are inevitable.”

What seems clear is that many organisations will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis looking quite different to how they were before and leaders are going to be leading perpetual change for some time to come. This brings its own challenges as humans like habits, change is often uncomfortable and it has been a constant and stressful aspect of the pandemic for many employees.

"Leading change in our brave, new world means that leaders must be able to communicate the vision for change, help their teams adopt new practices and manage the inevitable resistance to change," says Larry Clarke, managing director, global learning solutions, at Harvard Business Publishing corporate learning.

“Underlying all of this is the need to let go of any expectation of certainty. Leaders need to become more comfortable with the idea that they’re not always going to have clear answers to provide, that they won’t always be able to project certainty.”

Clarke adds that leaders will need to develop a new level of personal adaptability, to question their own thinking and mental models and to dump any legacy processes that are no longer relevant. Encouragingly, Clarke says that even when there is great uncertainty, leaders can still thrive. However, this means developing leaders “who aren’t bothered by ambiguity, who can process new information and rapidly adapt when the dynamics are changing, and who are able to make decisions in a world where the unknowns may well outnumber the knowns”.