Forging great leaders in a time of crisis

Nicola Kleyn, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science. Picture: supplied
Nicola Kleyn, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science. Picture: supplied

How many times today have you checked your WhatsApp, your Instagram or Facebook feed, perhaps Twitter or the local news for more information about the Covid-19 coronavirus?

Five? Ten? Twenty or more?

This is a clear indication that during times of crisis we crave information.

We are hungry for clarity, for direction and for leadership.

The core to effective leadership during times of crisis is communication.

Whether in the business, political and social sphere, now is not the time to stay silent.

Everyone with the capability and capacity, as well as the platform and profile, to offer solace and solutions should be speaking up.

This had certainly been the approach adopted by Nicola Kleyn, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, who, in the wake of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, had led the school through limiting and vetting access to the campus from March 16, closing the campus on March 24 and migrating all learning to existing online channels.

In a recent conversation about crisis leadership, she said: “In addition to taking their organisations forward and amping up their communication, leaders needed to think constantly about how to reach those who might need special attention.”

This was particularly true in the South African context, which opened up myriad hurdles to effective connection.

During times of crisis, it was vital that leaders were realistic and honest about the immediate effects that would be felt by their businesses and their people.
Alison Reid

“This list is long but might include employees who can’t access online communications easily, those who are running households solo [either on their own or with young kids], those who are medically vulnerable or have such individuals in their household, as well as those who have battled mental illness in the past,” Kleyn said.

“It’s especially important for leaders to ensure that someone is paying special attention to these individuals and preferably making one-on-one voice contact with them every day.”

During times of extraordinary uncertainty, people wanted contact and insights, they craved some degree of certainty and they were looking for role models.

These put overwhelming pressure on leaders who themselves were trepidatious about the future, but still had to marshal all their internal resources and abilities.

Sometimes they needed some direction.

“Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, our Coaching@GIBS experts and members of the business school’s leadership faculty have taken to the digital space to continue their work with leaders and their teams, helping them to navigate an extraordinary situation that’s affecting lives, businesses and the economy.

“Drawing on the conversations being had with business leaders, managers and executives, 19 of our faculty outlined their top insights for leading from the epicentre of a crisis; tips which applied to heads of global multinationals, small family-run businesses, franchises or teams being affected by remote work and the strangeness of physical distance.

Be clear, calm and consistent

Time and again our experts came back to the importance of truthful, frequent and non-alarmist communication in the face of a crisis.

This could be challenging with information updating rapidly and bombarding us from all directions, but being clear and honest – even if that means having to say, ‘I do not know at this time’ – was critical to avoiding panic.

“Be realistic not alarmist – [leaders should] equip themselves with facts from the right sources and share these across all organisational communication platforms,” said one of Gibs’ coaches, highlighting the difference in approach between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s measured and deliberate response to the pandemic versus the at-times flippant approach adopted by US President Donald Trump.

Communication did not have to be fancy or flowery but it did need to “keep employees updated at all times on what the business is doing to manage the crisis”.

When things went quiet, people began to worry. So, nip that in the bud by making use of regular updates.

How you communicate was also crucial. “Be human and deeply empathetic,” was one comment, which was reinforced with the advice to “position your thinking within a context”.

Finally, recognising that “no man is an island” was essential to fostering an open and collective leadership approach, supported by managers and leaders you trusted. “Together you can do far more than anyone can do on their own,” a coach emphasised.

Focus on the common good

This strong theme permeated the feedback received from all Gibs’ coaches, underlining that during challenging times it was important to make decisions for the common good with human wellbeing at the core.

One powerful comment was: “Don’t maliciously exploit this crisis. For example, it is not a time to downsize the workforce because it is something they have always wanted to do. [It was about being] creative and following social capital models. Employment would be a great focus after this passes.”

Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf extends sign of victory with fingers to thousands of supporters at her residence after being declared as winner of the run-off elections on November 23, 2005 in Monrovia, Liberia. She promised to fight corruption and creates jobs. Picture: Taleb Ahmad Baah/Panapress

The common good extended beyond the business family to the entire community and country. “The context of the whole was more important than the individual – we need to work together to solve this,” was one comment.

This form of leadership was on display recently in an open letter from the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which was shared on the BBC World Service.

Johnson Sirleaf praised world leaders who had responded to West Africa’s 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak and called for solidarity and collective action to tackle Covid-19. “Every person, in every nation, needs to do their part,” she said.

Focus attention on navigating the immediate threat

It went without saying that leaders should be strategic and respond to a crisis with the future in mind, but they needed to act in the now, “avoiding reactive responses”. Other suggestions included: “Look for ways to adapt and implement innovation”; “dive in and find your differentiator [reinvent the business while the playing fields are level]”; and “make short-term sacrifices to survive and thrive for the long term”.

During times of crisis, it was vital that leaders were realistic and honest about the immediate effects that would be felt by their businesses and their people. Search for creative solutions to keep a business afloat but, above all, “face the reality and get to grips with what is really going on.

Do not sugar-coat the situation, but do gather facts. Assess the facts and determine how bad it is and then consider the implications.”

If you had to take hard decisions, act with empathy and humanity. This was starkly illustrated when Talk Radio 702’s The Money Show aired a conference call between Edcon CEO Grant Pattison and his suppliers in late-March, when Pattison explained the company was unable to honour its accounts. The CEO lost his composure towards the end of the call, as did show host Bruce Whitfield.

An emotional Pattison expressed his gratitude to suppliers and promised to keep them informed. “I hope we will all emerge from this and get a chance to repair the collective economic damage. “Management and the board of Edcon wish you and your employees and your families safe, good health in the upcoming weeks,” he said.

Stand for something

Leadership needed to be a stabilising force in a crisis, with leaders acting as role models.

There had been countless examples of this leading from the front during the Covid-19 pandemic, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leading from the front by going into quarantine and self-isolation respectively.

On the other side of the coin, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued to make utterances such as: “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen.”

The core to effective leadership during times of crisis is communication. Whether in the business, political and social sphere, now is not the time to stay silent
Alison Reid

Gibs’ experts noted the importance of leaders across society becoming pillars of stability. “In volatile times, stable leaders facilitate trust and optimism in their teams,” was one observation. Another tip was to: “Balance the need to keep learning, absorbing, gaining additional perspectives and information, with the need to be decisive, and give concrete direction to people.”

Maintain your own reserves

And last, mental health should be a key concern for leaders in times of crisis. This meant paying attention to their own and others’ emotional wellbeing.

Lives had changed overnight, people were struggling financially, they were anxious and dealing with unprecedented change.

People needed to feel they were not alone, said the experts who called on leaders to “listen to understand and facilitate psychological wellbeing”.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose wealth is e
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Pic: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

For leaders themselves, taking time to refocus, exercise and making time to share their fears and feelings could be remarkably calming and centring. This was where coaching had a role to play.

At this level it was extremely helpful to have a qualified thinking partner with a solid track record in your corner.

Globally recognised business leaders, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and Alphabet chairperson, had extolled the value of coaching.

“We all need people who will give us feedback, that’s how we improve,” said Gates during a 2013 TED talk. Schmidt highlighted the importance of “another set of eyes” in a 2009 Fortune magazine interview.

And that was during “business as normal” times. What about times of complete global disruption?

Times like these, when so much was riding on how you lead. Times that stretch everyday leaders into great leaders.

Alison Reid is director of personal and applied learning at the Gibs


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