Are You Leading Through the Crisis ... or Managing the Response?

The coronavirus crisis, like every crisis, is unfolding over an arc of time with a beginning, middle and end. The actions of executives and their teams now, in the midst of this crisis, will significantly determine their fate.

For nearly two decades, we’ve researched and observed public and private-sector executives in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. What we’ve learned is that crises are most often overmanaged and under-led. The best leaders navigate rough waters deftly, saving lives, energizing organizations and inspiring communities. However, we’ve found that many leaders fall into one or more of the following leadership traps:

THEY TAKE A NARROW VIEW: The human brain is programmed to narrow its focus in the face of a threat. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism designed for self-protection. The trap is that your field of vision becomes restricted to the immediate foreground.

Leaders need to intentionally pull back, opening their mental aperture to take in the mid- and background. It is what we call meta-leadership — taking a broad, holistic view of both challenges and opportunities. Properly focused meta-leadership fosters well-directed management.

THEY GET SEDUCED BY MANAGING: Managing a crisis can feel thrilling. The trap is that you’re often returning to your operational comfort zone. Your adrenaline spikes as decisions are made and actions are taken. But like a sugar high, it’s quickly followed by a crash.

As opposed to managing the present, leading through a crisis requires taking the long view. You need to anticipate what comes next week, next month and even next year to prepare the organization for the changes ahead. You need to delegate and trust your people as they make tough decisions, providing proper support and guidance based on your experience while resisting the urge to micromanage.

THEY OVERCENTRALIZE THE RESPONSE: Risk and ambiguity increase during a crisis because so much is uncertain and volatile. The trap for leaders is trying to control everything. Suddenly, you’ve created new layers of approval for minor decisions. The organization becomes less responsive and frustration grows with each new constraint.

The solution is to seek order rather than control. Order means that people know what is expected of them and what they can expect of others. Determine which decisions only you can make and delegate the rest. Establish clear guiding values and principles while forgoing the temptation to do everything yourself.

THEY FORGET THE HUMAN FACTORS: Leaders can become trapped by focusing on the daily metrics of share price, revenue and costs. The solution is to unite people in their efforts and goals as valued members of a cohesive team. This starts with a common, clearly articulated mission that infuses the work with purpose. The mission is then animated through an inclusive leadership approach where each person understands how she can contribute — and that her contribution is recognized. This gives deeper meaning to even the most menial tasks.

In crises, the most effective leaders ensure that someone else is managing the present well, while focusing their own attention on leading beyond the crisis toward a more promising future. To do so successfully, watch for these traps.


Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.



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