Leadership during the Coronavirus outbreak

There is a paradox in discussing leadership during this crisis for us all. The reason leaders are struggling right now is that traditional expectations of a ‘strong leader’ are already flawed. 

They are flawed because they are rooted in the idea of a leader who takes tough decisions during crises for the organisation, makes a rapid impact and maintains control.

This is what Professor Keith Grint describes as the ‘commander’ who gives orders when organisations face ‘critical problems’. Keith points out that a style of ‘manager’ is more effective when organisations need to be given answers or technical solutions to ‘tame problems’ – whereas the most challenging and desirable is the style of ‘leader’ who asks the right questions of organisations facing ‘wicked problems’ – those that are difficult to identify and solve due to their complexity and shifting requirements.

So… if we are in a crisis now, why is the ‘commander’ model not the right one?

The answer is that the moment of crisis is usually brief, and most organisations have already issued their orders and immediate coping strategies for the short-term aspects of this crisis.

We have already moved on to the realm of wicked problems, with questions about the long-term social, economic and moral health of our communities and the future role of government, companies, the gig economy and community organisations.

Leadership now is about asking good questions, trusting your teams, encouraging experimentation – it is not about more leaders, it is about more leadership at all levels.

Why do we need leadership at all levels instead?

It is patently obvious in many remotely-working organisations that traditional hierarchical management is impossible for now – everyone must be trusted to exercise leadership. Well-led organisations are building strengths in decentralised leadership that will enable them to bounce back more capable than ever after the virus subsides.

Many people, especially in the English-speaking world, are currently comparing their political leaders with Winston Churchill as Prime Minister 1940-45. The problem is that most people carry around myths of that period, they forget that Britons were panic buying then as now!

In reality, Churchill only behaved as a ‘commander in a crisis’ for 9-12 months 1940-41 and he came under increasing criticism in Parliament 1941-2. He spent most time engaging with his military leadership and selecting the right generals – he demanded leadership at all levels.

However, Churchill neglected the ‘wicked problems’ of poverty and inequality facing Britain and never engaged people through a vision of the future that people would fight for. He left that to his Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who won the 1945 General Election and built our modern state.

Leaders right now need to engage, motivate and ask questions, trusting their teams – instead of holding on to the controls, they should be expecting their people to exercise leadership at all levels.

Written by Keith Leslie. Keith is Chair of the Mental Health Foundation and a leadership author and speaker. His book ‘Games Leaders Play’ is due to be published later in 2020.

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