Video of the webinar on the same subject is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnP0kZoF6wM&feature=youtu.be
The meaning of crisis itself has altered so much during this time of the pandemic. A few years ago, our experience of a crisis would have been limited to a family, a neighbourhood or sometimes a country or the crisis faced during a terror attack or an economic downturn. What the world faces now is the mother of all crisis as it is a global pandemic and not limited to a region, state, country or a group of countries. It is getting us to redefine what a crisis is, and therefore how we manage ourselves and the kind of leadership that is required during this crisis.
This COVID crisis has shown us that there it respects no borders or boundaries; it has also highlighted the fragility of the global economy while also demonstrating how inter-connected all of us actually are. It has further shown us how vulnerable humankind is and how frightening it could become. No one can say with certainty how things are going to be in the future. The interconnectedness and the dangers that come from it are very real. Take the example of a not for profit organization that can be affected by the layoffs or losses in the corporate sector. But even in these dark times there is a silver lining and that is the resilience and the ability of humankind to cope and work its way out of this crisis. The price we are paying maybe huge but this is also precisely the time for Leadership to come to the fore and we have seen fascinating expressions of this leadership – it could be an ASHA worker in a village demonstrating leadership or a corporate organization shifting its production lines from making automobiles to face shields and ventilators. We have also seen examples of successful and unsuccessful national-level leadership – India , New Zealand and Singapore are examples of the former while the wrong judgement calls taken in some of the European countries are examples of the latter. In dealing with this crisis there is a need to address the current phase now – the acute phase; survive and then look to the next steps that have to be taken to build the adaptive capacity of individuals and society to deal with similar situations in the future.
One needs to understand leadership before asking oneself what kind of leadership is required now. All of us intuitively think we understand leadership – an intuitive appreciation of somebody who is at the top or holds a position of authority, somebody with the ability to take decisions and a set of people following them who comply with these directions issued. There is the classical definition of corporate leadership – of an individual leader who shares and drives a vision and takes people along to achieve common goals that are outlined by the leader.
Leadership is about action; activity that leads to mobilization of a group of people to solve a problem. In the context of COVID-19, it could be specific steps to be taken to address the situation for the immediate in the here and now. In short, “Leadership is the activity of mobilizing a group of people and all the resources around us to achieve something societally constructive in the midst of enormous uncertainty”. Leadership is also about constructing “Reality” as close to “The reality” as possible. Countries that have been able to do this and take necessary steps have been far more successful in dealing with or at least limiting this crisis and its consequences. It is also important to acknowledge that disaster management plans and risk mitigation plans that countries already have in place would also fall short because of the unprecedented nature of the present crisis – data is incomplete, information is unavailable, and the current toolbox may not have the necessary tools to manage this crisis. In a crisis such as this, where dissonance and noise that comes from multiple sources and feedback from all quarters, the challenge of leadership is to remain focused on the issue at hand – focusing both on today as well as be able to look ahead.
Leadership in a crisis begins with what one knows and then being open to what one needs to know. Leadership is also about acknowledging and appreciating the issues that might come up in the future as a consequence of our decisions today. The lockdown is an example – it was the intended and required response but it has and will throw up several unintended consequences – migrant labour, livelihoods, impact on rural population, food production, and industrial production and so on. Therefore, leadership needs to grapple with the problem of inadequate data and the consequences of even well intentioned decisions of today that could have consequences tomorrow. You therefore cannot have a “Crisis Leader.” However, we could have several crisis managers helping a leader grapple with and manage the crisis – people with diverse expertise and domain knowledge who will help a leader get closer to reality.
One also needs to remember that every domain has its own appreciation of reality – the head of the Reserve Bank, the political constituents, the public health specialists and so on – it is the leader’s role to negotiate through all this and come up with a workable solution while also not being swayed by the typical armchair critic. Crisis leadership therefore, is not just the ability to manage a crisis but more importantly the ability to collaborate and work with diverse perspectives of a crisis. This calls for a combination of the heart and the mind, the ability to combine what the scientists are saying with what your heart is telling you to do – this requires a leader to be demanding but not intrusive, responsive and reassuring but not reactive, be present when needed, be empowering and not disempowering – be like the mother is to a child. Being decisive and knowing what NOT to do is also critical during a crisis. Furthermore, in all of the noise and disruption that comes at us it becomes crucial to identify the “Voice” in that “Noise” that we can let in and what needs to be filtered out. It requires that a leader remains focused on the crisis while at the same time not losing sight of the original mandate of the organization and his/her role.
While the short-term goal of safety should be the current priority, the long-term priority of how to get the country or an organization back on its rails should both be carefully weighed and considered. From a personal point-of-view, be it a CEO of a large company, an entrepreneur, a state-level leader or a national leader, the single most important requirement is the need to communicate a sustained presence, maintain a channel of communication open, provide direction, stay calm, remain strong – all of this while being a realist too – that is the challenge of crisis-leadership. Here the leader has to exhibit the three D’s of Dispassion, Discrimination, and Detachment – not being carried away by emotions, be detached and take the position of the active observer. In line with what the Bhagavad Gita says about being detached while being an active observer who sees and acts but does not get sucked into it himself/herself. The leader must learn to Discriminate between noise and voice, reality and what looks like reality, and then act without becoming paralyzed by the fear of what the consequences of his/her action could be – act because your role demands it and like the Gita says do not worry about the fruits of your action.
Leadership during a crisis requires a leader to create the “holding” environment, an ecosystem where team members can feel safe, secure, and protected. Leaders have to learn to go beyond their default rigidities and learn to adapt to the newer realities and the changes that are inevitable. Leaders must learn to treat experience with the respect it deserves and nothing more. “Experience must inform us and not influence us. Often leaders who allow their past experience to influence them are those who are caught in the groove of their rigidities.
The leader also must have the strength of character to subsume himself and work with others in the spirit of cooperation. A crisis such as this cannot be solved by one man or a messiah waving a magic wand. Learning to build and work with allies helps the leader build coalitions to solve the problem. The way the Prime Minister of India, Mr Modi reached out to the people, the Chief Ministers of all States and also the neighbouring countries is an example of how coalitions can be built and is a reflection of crisis leadership.
The old Leadership talked about cooperation, the new leadership is about collaboration. Collaboration is working together toward a common goal, while cooperation is only supporting each other so that everyone reaches their individual goals. Finally, humility is essential as also the openness to experiment and try out newer solutions. Leaders must beware of falling back on to the beaten path or resorting to tried methods and textbook solutions that may not necessarily work in a crisis such as this – and this can only happen when leadership transcends the limits of a leaders own experiences. Leadership is also about learning how to give the work back to the people and refusing to be seduced by the belief that you can do it yourself. A leader should know that when he/she takes on the position of leadership, he/she also takes on the responsibility of suffering the criticisms and humiliation that he/she may be subjected to. It could well be that the leader may actually take a decision that may backfire but he/she should still take the decision as long as the sincerity of purpose, conviction, and integrity are not in question and the leader knows that he/she is doing this not for self-aggrandizement but for the benefit of all.
Staying grounded, subsuming one’s ego are keys to crisis leadership. Learning to solve the acute crisis while also working to build the long-term adaptability of the team and the organization are also important aspects of crisis leadership. Crisis is not to be run away from. Crisis can itself be an opportunity or a test of a leader’s ability to grow as a leader. For, Leadership itself is a tapasya and when viewed as ‘Tapasya’, leadership will not be a burden but becomes a fascinating spiritual journey.