What has the executive team already forgotten about hard-fought lessons about leadership learned in COVID times?

Crisis situation are characterised by being urgent, complicated, nuanced, ambiguous and messy. The easy part is acknowledging that crisis presents exceptional and unprecedented challenges for organisations and leadership teams. In such periods, the stakes appear higher, and the decisions made can have far-reaching consequences.  

The question of whether a leadership team should think, act and behave differently during times of war, conflict, and crisis is undoubtedly open for debate. But what did the last global pandemic (crisis) teach us, and what lessons learned have we forgotten in the light of new wars? 

Pre-pandemic leadership framing about how to deal with a crisis.

The vast majority of how to deal with a crisis pre-pandemic was based on coaching, training and mentoring but lacked real experience of the realities because global crises do not happen at scale very often. Whilst essential to prepare, thankfully most directors never get to work in a crisis and learn. Pre-COVID, the structured and passed down wisdom focussed on developing the following skills.   

Be Adaptable: In times of crisis, including war and conflict, the operating environment becomes highly volatile and uncertain. A leadership team must become more adaptable and flexible to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. Directors are trained to be more willing to recognise and pivot their strategies and make quick decisions, unlike stable times, where longer-term planning is often feasible.

Unity and Cohesion: A leadership team should act cohesively during a crisis and drop the niggles and power plays. Clear communication and collaboration among executives and directors are essential to ensure everyone is aligned and working towards a common goal. Unity is critical in times of uncertainty to maintain the organisation's stability and morale.

Decisiveness: Crisis demands decisiveness, with fewer facts and more noise, from its leaders. In the face of adversity, a leadership team should be ready to make tough choices promptly which will be very different to normal day-to-day thinking. Hesitation can be costly, and the consequences of indecision are amplified and become more severe during a crisis. 

Resource Allocation: A crisis will strain resources, making efficient and effective allocation idealistic and not practical. A leadership team should reevaluate its resource allocation, prioritising the needs based on the best opinion today, which will mean compromise and sacrifice.  It is about doing your best, as it will never be the most efficient, effective or right. 

Risk Management: In times of crisis, certain risks are heightened. A leadership team must adjust its risk management strategy, potentially being more conservative and prudent to safeguard the people and the organisation's long-term viability.

This is a lovely twee list, they are obvious, highly relevant and important, but the reality is totally different. Leaders and directors quickly move past these ideals to the reality of crisis management. 

The day-to-day stress and grind of crisis surface the unsaid, hostile and uncomfortable - all aspects we learned in COVID and include.

Consistency: Maintaining a level of consistency across the leadership’s behaviour, regardless of the personal view and external circumstances. Drastic changes in leadership style create additional confusion and anxiety, creating an additional dimension to the existing crisis.

Ethical Compass: The moral and ethical compass of a leadership team should not waver in times of crisis. Principles such as honesty, integrity, acceptance, and respect (for all views and opinions that are legal) should be upheld, as compromising on ethics can lead to long-term damage to the individual and organisation's reputation.  Different opinions matter, as does the importance of ensuring they are aired and discussed openly, however hard and uncomfortable.  We might not agree because of our own framing, but that does not mean we actually know what is true or false. 

Strategic Focus: While adaptability is important, a leadership team should not lose sight of its agreed long-term strategic vision. Abrupt changes can disrupt the organisation's core mission and values. Strategies may need to be tweaked, but the overarching values and vision should remain consistent, even in the face of uncertainty.  If it does not - then there is a massively different issue you are facing.

Transparency: Honesty and transparency are essential, particularly during times of crisis. A leadership team should communicate openly with themselves, employees and stakeholders, providing them with a clear understanding of the challenges and the strategies being employed to overcome them.  Those prioritising themselves over the cause and survival need to be cut free. 

Legal and Regulatory Compliance: A leadership team should not compromise on legal and regulatory compliance, however much there is a push to the boundaries. Violating laws or regulations can lead to severe consequences that may outweigh any short-term benefits. Many will not like operating in grey areas, which might mean releasing of the leadership team.

Crisis on Crisis: because we don't know what is going on in someone else's head, heart or home, individuals can quickly run into burnout.  We don’t know who has a sick child, a family member has cancer, lost a loved one or is just in a moment of doubt.  Each leadership team should assume that everyone in their team needs help and support constantly.  

What have we already forgotten?

Post-pandemic leadership quickly forgot about burnout, ethics, transparency and single-mindedness to revert to power plays, incentives and individualism.  It was easy to return to where we are most comfortable, and most experiences exist - stability and no global crisis.  Interest rates and debt access are hard but are not a crisis unless your model is shot.   The congratulatory thinking focussed on we survived the global crisis, it was a blip that is unlikely to be repeated. 

The unique challenges and pressures of war demand adaptability, unity, decisiveness, and resource allocation adjustments - essential skills.  However, we have learned that this focus should not come at the expense of consistency, ethical integrity, strategic focus, transparency, and legal compliance. A leadership team's ability to strike this balance can determine the organisation's survival and success during the most trying times. Ultimately, leadership must adapt while maintaining its core values and principles to navigate the turbulent waters of wartime effectively.

Whether a leadership team should act differently in times of war is a matter of balance, but the lessons and skills we have need to be front and centre.  Today, focus on the team and spend more time than ever checking in on your team, staff, suppliers and those in the wider ecosystem.  Crisis and conflict destroys life and lives at many levels.