How to be a true leader in times of uncertainty

Due to the coronavirus crisis, the shape of leadership is fundamentally changing. Behavioural Scientist and psychologist, Milo Arne Wilkinson, looks at what it means to be a leader now. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently announced she would be taking a pay cut and cited the reason being leadership. It is important, now more than ever, that leaders are prepared to show uncertainty and vulnerability. People are longing for a positive message, but they will not believe the positive messages if the leader is not transparent about the negative parts as well. People want a leader to project compassion, understanding, and hope, even without knowing everything about the present situation.

Working from home and having flexibility is not the new normal – we have moved to a world (albeit temporarily) where it is being enforced, so the freedom to choose a day here or there is already eroded – even your habit of working from the local café is lost.  Our ability to physically socialize, exercise and go about our usual routine is gone. We have to quickly establish a new state of normal and that won’t be easy, but the biggest challenges will be faced by leaders.

Crisis leaders


The truth is, some of us are great process leaders, some of us are fantastic 'business as usual' leaders but we aren’t all natural born crisis leaders. Crisis leadership takes a whole different set of skills.

At senior levels of leadership, a recent survey (prior to Covid-19) undertaken by Eleven, a leadership course based on beahaviour change, noted that more than 82% of C-suite leaders felt lonely in their positions and in the decisions they had to make.  The cause of these feelings was a mix of trust; privilege; command and control; competency; a need for dominance; imposter syndrome and isolation of position. Add to that a physical isolation due to a global pandemic and crisis leaders can run into difficulty.

Political scientist Arjen Boin, at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has studied the most successful and unsuccessful responses during previous emergencies and in his research into crises like the 9/11 attacks on the US and Hurricane Katrina, Boin has identified many of the steps necessary for an effective leadership response.

1)  Frequently acknowledge the situation

 Leaders should offer a rapid recognition of the danger by acknowledging how the world looks and the fear it invokes. Leaders should do what they can to collectively make sense of the situation as frequently as twice per day.  When physicians working on the front line were able to express their fears and emotions, they recorded a 63% decrease in their anxiety just by creating a space to express it.

2)  Treat your team like adults

   Although it is commonly believed that the public will panic in times of emergency, there is little empirical evidence to back this up (not even a rush for toilet paper falls within this category). For this reason, leaders should be open about the evolving nature of the problem. Avoid treating your team like children that need to be shielded from bad news and instead treat them as adults that are going to make a long-term effort. You want to be honest and real about the uncertainty that exists.

3)    Don't underestimate the power of your words


In the heat of the moment, many leaders don’t appreciate just how important the messaging can be, particularly regarding consistency and openness. I think that leaders sometimes underestimate the effect of their own words, especially the effects of the things they don't say. Your leadership will be defined by what you say, not what you hold back.

4)    Appeal to collective values

Appeal to collective values and collective history, emphasising the organisation at large rather than individual self-interest. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s handling of the 9/11 attacks is an excellent example of this. Giuliani appealed to New Yorkers’ collective pride by repeatedly asking them to set an example for the rest of the US – and the result of his memorable and continued efforts to acknowledge their grief and raise morale was met with widespread approval, that continued long after the event. Start with their grief and then appeal to the organisations history, the brand, the pride you all feel, the values, the fact that you can handle a crisis – you have been training for it for years.  Empower them.

Find out more about Leadership and Eleven @ DBS here

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