Leadership during Uncertain Times

Crisis management: Need of the hour

We are living in unprecedented times! Humankind, at least in this generation, is experiencing its worst crisis ever with Covid-19. This was something unfathomable even a few weeks back. In this lockdown state, several thoughts have come to my mind. Although in my own lifetime, I have experienced many a crisis, this one is clearly something which I had not imagined, even in my wildest dreams. A microscopic creature that we cannot see, touch, feel, hear or smell has brought the entire world down on its knees. 

In my last article, I spoke about technology disrupting the work environment and how leaders need to up-skill. That is actually very relevant to today’s baffling times. The leaders who possess those skills that I spoke about there [including emotional intelligence, resilience, creativity, adaptability and collaboration] would surely be managing these times better. Click here to read the article now, if you haven’t already. 

As an entrepreneur, I have personally dealt with many a crisis over the years building my various organizations. Riots, political turmoil, clients going bankrupt, business disruption, rogue employees, physical attacks, to name a few. In 2002, when my previous business was at its nascent stage, the whole episode of Kannada film industry’s legendary star, Dr. Rajkumar’s kidnapping took place and there were riots all over and the city virtually shut down for several days. However, we could not shut the business even for a day as we were still new and ran key operations for our overseas clients, lest the repercussions it would have had and the perception with the client would sound the death knell for this business. I remember ferrying people to and from the office at odd hours as we didn’t have the necessary technology or infrastructure to work from home. From organising food, pick up and even managing safety of the teams while even my home was attacked and ensuring that the work did not suffer for several days, was no easy feat. Internet was a huge issue those days and we moved entire systems to different locations using cabs and even worked from cyber cafes when the need arose. Later, as that company grew and we had a large campus in Mysore with over 1000 people working there, these challenges took a different dimension. The Cauvery river water dispute brought periodic challenges with riots and lockdown and, we had to find creative ways to move people between cities and keep people at work. The current crisis, of course, is completely different!

Kubler Ross Change curve and its relevance

Anytime we encounter a crisis or a change that is undesirable, we go through a cycle that is fairly predictable. 

Having taught the Kubler Ross change model to all the participants of my leadership training, it clearly comes to mind during this Covid-19 crisis. At the very beginning of this cycle is ‘Shock’. When we heard about what was happening in China and it started to spread to other parts of the world, I was in “Shock”. However, I was also clearly in “Denial” that this may not affect us in any way and somehow thought that India would escape it. Theories around how the heat in India would limit its spread and the immunity of our society due to the various epidemics we have seen in the past etc. kept me hopeful. I continued to make my travel plans assuming this would blow over. When we started seeing cases close to home and the government started to bring in restrictions and most countries started to close borders, slowly “Acceptance” started to creep-in as this was getting real now! For me personally, as I am always on the move, travel extensively and enjoy interacting with people, the acceptance came only after I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of experts talk about the dire need of “Social Distancing” and “Flattening the curve” and those being the only way to defeat this virus. This soon led to “Frustration” as the lockdown was announced. Clearly the lockdown brought some days of “Depression” that came with being shut at home and with the uncertainty that loomed large in front of us. However, there is good news. We humans are extremely capable of getting out of any difficult situation and I am sure we will adapt to new ways, find creative and innovative solutions and come out of this soon. I believe that in some of the ways we are leveraging technology, we are clearly heading towards the “Experimenting” and “Decision making” stage. Various research for vaccines and other drugs is already underway. It is only a matter of time before we get ahead in that curve and move towards “Integration”.

Now the real question I want to address is: How do we as leaders handle these situations? It is imperative that we deal with any crisis in an efficient manner. It is crucial that we handle these changes well since recovery is a top-down process. In fact, leadership is more important than ever during a crisis. Here are some ways that leaders can manage any crisis:

Remain Calm 

When things go haywire, people have a natural tendency to panic. It is normal that all the noise around you can cause this panic too. Remember, if a leader panics, it percolates quickly, and the entire team will be in panic mode soon. Personal feelings aside, a leader has to remain calm while facing fire. Though for many, the ability to remain calm is a part of their personality, I believe any leader can teach himself or herself to do this through self-reflection, self-discipline and practice. 

Be Objective

This is extremely important in today’s world of Social media. Communication and sharing apps like WhatsApp, while are effective tools for information sharing, can also wreak havoc due to fake news and its potential for going viral. All it takes is for someone to post a wrong picture out of context and add a short note to create fear among people and it will soon go viral. A crisis is also emotional for people and these messages easily feed into their anxiety and insecurity. Leaders must not fall into this trap. They must always deal with the situation based on data and statistics and objectively choose these sources of data and information and monitor them continuously.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…

At the time of crisis, if the leader shuts down, then the team will assume the worst. It is also a leader’s responsibility to keep the atmosphere light and communicate constantly with the team. It is not only about the team, but all the stakeholders that you cater to. Talk to them as well. You would be surprised at how much support one can garner by keeping people informed. We have seen several world leaders rise up to the current challenge and they have done a great job communicating to the masses. 

Being Resilient 

This quality of a leader is something that I also spoke about in my previous article. Life will knock you down, but it is the ability to bounce back that will take you places. Take it on your chin but wake up the next day ready for a new fight. The belief that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and a beautiful destination when this difficult journey finally ends, is hugely important.

Stay positive 

Easier said than done right? However, positivity is infectious. If the culture of a company is positive, crisis management becomes easier. When the teams are committed, they will find different ways to support you during tough times. If they feel connected with the leader, they will give their best even while working from home. I will elaborate more on building culture in another article soon.

Finally, let us remember that nothing lasts forever. Everything is a cycle. We need to mentally prepare ourselves for the worst situation but continue to hope for the best. You never know, things could be even better than it used to be before the onset of a crisis. Once the upheaval is over, we will learn to value life, simpler things, office camaraderie and connecting more than ever before. 

None of us can predict what the future will bring or how long this crisis will last. However, the good news is, we are all in this together. Let us take this one day at a time. This too shall pass!!

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