Why is leadership at this time different from simple crisis management?

woman working from home

Written by Phil Bull, Managing Partner, Reed Professional Services

As someone who has been through significant corporate catastrophe – the Buncefield oil depot disaster 14 years ago – I wanted to take some time to reflect upon how the skills and techniques used then compare with those needed now to lead an organisation during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Buncefield oil depot disaster was an incident that resulted in the largest explosion since World War Two. Thankfully, owing to the early-morning nature of the incident, there was no loss of life and few injuries. The Northgate-IS  headquarters, multiple data centres, and support services were all lost, however, and it took 12 months of intense activity to rebuild the FTSE 250 company.

The fundamental difference between Buncefield and the COVID-19 pandemic is that this crisis affects all organisations. How much of a difference does that make? Well, all the difference in the world. A crisis is just a period of intense and climactic change, but context changes everything.

As a leader working with a group of people who have just had the rug pulled out from underneath them, it’s important to create direction and cohesion, but also to create a sense of determination and drive, and most of all, a belief that problems can be solved and work can be completed. A great many people will always struggle in a crisis situation, even some of the most seasoned individuals, and the creation of an environment they can actually believe in – have faith in, if you will – is essential for success.

Okay, so it’s all very well to state that, but how do you actually achieve that? How we act as leaders is important, but creating a wider environment with multiple voices lessens the load; a broad church of enthusiasm increases the level of faith. The Buncefield recovery programme didn’t just include hundreds of Buncefield staff working flat out to rebuild the organisation, there was a whole cohort of partners and suppliers who rose to the challenge too.

Why were partners and suppliers so important? Because they helped create a driven, positive atmosphere. Some partners and suppliers, because they were paid well, were driven by financial reasons. However, for most, deciding to take on the demanding work, long hours and at times utter frustration of rebuilding, came down the buzz of achievement, self-satisfaction, and the excitement of delivering something monumental that hadn’t been done before. Also, ultimately, this change, this rebuild, wasn’t something that was going to affect them negatively. Their jobs weren’t on the line if it went wrong; their companies weren’t bleeding too.

Recovery from the Buncefield disaster was exhausting, and I never thought I’d say this, but it was eminently easier than Covid-19.

Why? Well seven or so weeks in, am I the only one to note the fatigue slipping into people’s voices? Motivation dipping? At the beginning, even before the formal “stay at home” notice was served, people were very much focused on being careful. Despite the lack of proactive options available, people were charged with a fervour, a Churchillian style resolve even. But time erodes that. Worry erodes that. Lack of a clear end or switch point erodes it. This time I don’t have a number of exuberant partners to throw into the mix because everyone is being impacted similarly. There is no halo effect. This time, faith, trust, and the success that they breed will only come from one place: your organisation’s leadership. From the team responsible for running things.

This isn’t to say you have to do it on your own. That’s simply not possible, and I can tell you that from personal experience, the Ulysses leader is as mythical as a fluffy unicorn. But it is essential that your leadership group is energised, aligned, and communicate clearly.

First, look at that leadership group. Widen it, to ensure that all aspects of your organisation are represented – now is not a time to be worried about hierarchy. Membership should be determined by operational effectiveness and an ability to pivot and embrace change, now the most important factors for success. If you have major outsource partners, bring them in too, involve them. They are intrinsically tied to your success; if you fail, they fail, so they have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.

Now is the time for collegiate teams rather than command and control. Successful leaders will weave available components together to create an atmosphere of success that alleviates the fear and worry that could otherwise be debilitating for any organisation.

A leadership group with wider scope can project credibility, motivation and control, and, most importantly, create an environment everyone else can believe and trust in.

Next, get really brave. Resist the urge to drag decision making to the centre, do the opposite, even more than you did before. Establish mini-leaders across all business areas, decentralise leadership across the organisation. Enable people to feel like they are shaping the future of the organisation and you’ll see that atmosphere of drive and determination flourish.

The success of your leadership in this crisis will be not about being “the one” to provide all the answers and make all the decisions, but about the ability to motivate, inspire, energise and orchestrate over the next 6-9 months. Those that can, will emerge from this situation stronger, fitter and well positioned for the future. Those that can’t… well, it’s a brutal world right now!

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