Leading in times of crisis

The current COVID-19 has thrown the world into a major crisis. From the United States of America to Germany to Africa and Asia, the world is in a turmoil as a result of the infectious disease that causes respiratory illness. The handling of the pandemic has shown the different shades of leadership there are.

Nothing reveals a leader’s make up, strength and capacity more than a crisis. Crises don’t give advance notice before showing up. So, little or no room is given for definite preparation. Consequently, many leaders are thrown off balance and resort to kneejerk strategies to get out of the situation. But those who do that often sink further into the crisis and stand the chance of being swept away.

Crises pose very serious threat to any organization because they challenge its traditions and modes of operation while mounting pressure on it to take decisions that would shape its future. This is why what leaders do during a crisis is more critical than the crisis itself.


While good leaders are able to handle operational, product and personnel crises quite well, external crises, especially those that are national or global, stretch even the best of leaders to the breaking point. However, crises are not designed to cripple or destroy. While they may shake organizations, torment leaders, cause setbacks and thwart plans, if well-managed, crises end up as the engine that propels organizations into a great future they never envisaged.


Leading during a crisis

The most important thing in a crisis is not the crisis but people’s reaction to it. It is not the crisis that will determine the outcome; it is how it is handled that will determine the end result.


Don’t resort to panic

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world’s economy has been seriously threatened. Oil prices have been on a free fall while stocks have been heading south. China is the largest crude oil market. Since many of the factories in the country have either had their operations scaled down or completely shut down, demand for crude oil has dwindled and this has brought down crude oil price. This has put the economy of many countries in jeopardy.

It has been projected that global vehicle production would be reduced by about 1.7million this year as a result of the lock down in China. This will affect the revenue of vehicle manufacturing companies.

Apple has announced that it would not be able to meet its revenue projection for the first quarter of 2020 because worldwide iPhone supply would be temporarily constrained as a result of COVID-19 which had not only forced the company to scale down its operation but has also resulted in a decline in demand for its products. In the same vein, Microsoft has also alerted its investors to the likelihood of a decline in its first quarter revenue as a result of COVID-19.

Many countries are on lockdown. Airlines have cancelled flights, many events have been postponed. Sporting activities have been cancelled. The import of all these is that global recession is imminent and business outfits will face a difficult time.

The immediate response of many people to this is fear after which they switch to the panic mode. But a leader allowing himself to be overtaken by fear is an unforgiveable sin. While others may be pardoned for sinking into fear, for the leader, it is inexcusable because fear paralyses the brain and makes it difficult to think through the crisis to find a solution to it. So, the leader has to be calm. If the leader stays calm in spite of the pressure on him, he sends a message to everyone that the situation is under control. Consequently, the whole team is able to concentrate on collectively salvaging the situation rather than running helter-skelter.

Another effect of the leader being calm in difficult times is that he is able to take rational decisions instead of trying to get quick-fixes. When a leader allows himself to sink into confusion in the time of crises, even the most ludicrous counsel has a ring of ingenuity.


Don’t let the present crisis take you off your course

While the time of crisis is a time for adjustment of priority, the leader must not lose sight of his focus. He must never forget his purpose as a leader and should not underplay the vision of the organization. Even as he pays attention to the gnawing crisis to put it behind him as soon as possible, he must also deploy resources to the vision of his organization so that after the crisis, the company will not be out of business.

Sir Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in May 1940, not too long after the outbreak of the World War II. It was a difficult time to be a leader.  He knew he was made the party leader and eventually the Prime Minister because the whole country wanted a change. He knew that his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, was voted out because of his policy of ‘appeasement’ toward Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. So, he had his job cut out for him and he understood perfectly what his job was. So, at his first appearance at the House of Commons, he demonstrated his single-mindedness to the nation.

He said, “We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

A leader should always answer the questions: ‘What is my aim?’ and ‘What am I out to accomplish’ to see if he still on course in spite of a crisis.


Focus on what you can control

Crises are precipitated by different factors some of which are beyond the control of the leader. To get the best out of a crisis, the leader should focus on those things that are within his control. The leader does not have control over government policies, the economy, natural disasters or the operations of the competition. If he makes any of these his focus, he will be frustrated and become incapacitated. Consequently, he would be unable to do what is required to turn the tide in his favour. As said by Art Williams in his book, All You Can Do Is All You Can Do, the leader should devote his energy and resources to those things over which he has control; only that will prevent him and his organization from turning out as victims of the crisis. So, rather than worry about what is beyond your control, focus on what you are able to control such as your operation, marketing, pricing and customer relations.


Build confidence in people

During a crisis, the people want to hear their leader. This gives them confidence and raises their hope that the crisis would not crush them. The danger of keeping mute and refusing to speak to the people is that it would make room for rumour to gain ground and this may work against whatever the organization is doing to check the crisis.

Leaders don’t speak just to inform, they speak to transform. No time is this more necessary than during a crisis. In time of crisis, the leader needs to let the people know that he has their back and will do everything to protect their interest. This is a confidence-building mechanism that will spur the people to give in their best for the organisation.

In times of crisis, people need hope; they are hungry for something to believe. They want an assurance that things would get better. They want to know that their problems would be solved. They want to be assured that their future is secure. So, they look up to their leaders because they believe that they are the source of hope. As a matter of fact, leaders are merchants of hope. One of their basic responsibilities is to dispense hope to their people. Hope provides the energy that keeps the people going; it builds self-confidence in them and enhances their self-esteem. When hope is lost, all is gone.


Keep in touch

In time of peace, the primary task of a leader is visioning, giving direction and providing inspiration; he needs not be seen. However, he has to do more during a crisis. He has to lead from the front and demonstrate to the people that he is with them. He has to show that their concerns are his. During a crisis, a leader has to show that he cares about the people and not just what they can do for the organization. The leader has to show that he is with his people. If the leader stands aloof and carries on as if the people are on their own, not only will the crisis linger, he will find out when it is all over that he has been deserted by the people.

The rationale behind the plan of the United States of America to give $1,000 to every citizen that earns less than $1million and the United Kingdom promising that it would subsidize wages of citizens who lose their job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic by as much as 80 per cent is to demonstrate to the citizens that the countries’ leaders identify with them.


Seek opportunities

The Chinese use symbols to represent words. The word crisis is a combination of two symbols – danger and opportunity. The point here is that while every crisis has obvious dangers, there is no crisis without its benefits. The problem, however, is that while the difficulties and challenges are obvious, opportunities are buried in the crisis. As a result many people miss it. To get the opportunities in any crisis, you have to specifically look for it. So, don’t get too engrossed with the crisis, instead take time to analyze it and find out where the opportunities lie.

The world has experienced many crises but there is none of them that left the world without its own benefits.

World War I, which accounted for the death of over 20million people, brought about the medical innovation that is known as blood preservation. Before the war, there was nothing like blood donation because there was no way to preserve it. Giving blood to patients started during World War I, when Captain Oswald Robertson, a US army doctor, realised that there was the need to stockpile blood so it would be readily available when casualties arrived. He thus set up the first blood bank on the Western Front in 1917, using sodium citrate to stop the blood from clotting and becoming unusable. Now, blood preservation has become a whole industry.

Despite the pains World War II inflicted on humanity, the first computer, Colossus, was developed during the war and used to break the codes of the German Lorenz SZ-40 cipher machine that was used by the German High Command. Now, the whole world depends on computers.


Last line

The darkest part of the night is just before the dawn.

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