Is ‘good’ leadership different during a crisis?

The qualities of good leadership often seem more explicit during a crisis. But by understanding these qualities, employers can nurture them and ensure leaders remain effective when business returns to normal, as Duc V. Trang writes.

Business leadership teams have naturally been on the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis, dealing with a host of issues including employee displacement or layoffs; cybersecurity and data privacy; business interruption and the impact on contractual terms; corporate governance; and inevitable issues about restructuring.

Sooner or later, however, the Covid-19 crisis will subside. Then it’s back to business as usual for corporate leaders. Or is it?

Is good leadership in fact different in a crisis situation than that in periods of no crisis? Or is it simply a matter of degree? And, does it matter?

Effective leaders define, influence and mobilise an organisation to act to achieve strategic goals, in environments that are sometimes ambiguous or complex, particularly in crises. They ensure that present needs are managed well, while leading beyond the present towards a defined, and more promising future.

However, the qualities of effective leadership are not defined by external forces, such as crises. By understanding how good leadership – at its core – essentially is the same during moments of crisis or during periods of business as usual, organisations and companies can make better decisions on whom they hire and how to train current and future leaders.

The dichotomy of effective leadership during a crisis and at other times is artificial. Effective leadership during a crisis such as Covid-19 is not fundamentally different from any significant business change that imposes stress and pressure on the organisation. Imagine the situation where the company embarks on a significant strategy change, enter/exit business lines, or deploys a different go-to-market models. Or the company expands rapidly in additional geographies – further compounding the ever-increasing complexity and sheer volume of regulatory systems and changes impacting the company.

Any of those situations places considerable – or even extraordinary – pressure, stresses, and constraints on the organisation and its people. Successfully managing any such change would benefit from leaders deploying any combination of desired leadership skills. Although the stress and pressure may be of different degree than the current pandemic, how leaders respond to those changes remain constant.

Talent acquisition and leadership development

The core leadership traits and attributes in effective leaders are consistent, even in radically different times. If you want your leaders (at all levels) to perform and be effective in a crisis, it is unrealistic to expect current leaders to naturally perform well under unexpected, challenging conditions. The organisation will need to hire for and develop those skills during “normal times”, so that the leadership team and bench can better respond in those periods where there is an extraordinary amount of stress, complexity, pressure, time compression.

Senior management and HR leaders should take this opportunity to review how they are tackling the leadership problem.

The first challenge for companies and HR leaders is to make sure that there are detailed, leadership specifications and expectations when hiring. Many job descriptors are fairly generic, creating a second challenge for organisations – many don’t employ consistent and insightful interview and assessment tools for critical leadership skills discussed above.

Second, organisations and HR directors should take a hard look at whether their learning and development programme or leadership development programme is fit-for-purpose. Is the programme effective in identifying the right kind of candidates and candidate profiles to succeed? The assessment should acknowledge that past performance in one function is not an indicator of success in those leadership competencies discussed here. Effective leaders require a broad range of interdisciplinary skills and mindset. Organisations should continue to assess whether they are communicating the right leadership expectations to focus efforts on moving the leaders with the right leadership temperament, traits and trajectory into the leadership pipeline.

Finally, HR directors should re-examine the organisation’s leadership development programme to determine whether it actually cultivates these skills. Recent leadership surveys confirm that, despite the significant investments, many companies experience deep gaps in their leadership bench. For example, many programmes rely primarily on experiential training to develop quality decision-making. Learning methodologies suggest that it’s terribly inefficient and often leaves gaps. Since the upcoming leader is not provided with tools to understand the context in which certain decisions are made, many are not able to leverage insight that comes from experience. Organisations will need to think deeply to provide tools for structured learning to accelerate the development of leadership skills.

During time of crisis, it is tempting to start cutting costs, particularly talent and leadership development programmes. It’s understandable, when everyone is busier than ever, and there are severe cost pressures. However, during these uncertain times, people development and team building are more important than ever. HR and management teams should instead be bold and use the current crisis as an opportunity to rethink and enhance leadership acquisition and development.

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