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Leading in times of uncertainty

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

In times like these, with the outbreak of the Corona virus, I find it fascinating to see how we react and what lessons we can learn from a leadership perspective.

For political leaders, these are difficult times as you need to find a balance between protecting your citizens, doing the right thing whilst understanding the socio-economic impact of your decisions. Different countries are taking different measures and some politicians are using this situation to profile themselves to their voters. What to think about Donald Trump's statement about the irresponsibility of Europe in protecting its citizens and the world, coming from a president and country where social security is only for the richest people available thru private health care and where general health is lower than anywhere else in the world? The timing is perfect in full pre-election mode to take a harsh stand to Make America great again! As a Belgian citizen living in the Netherlands I am very impressed how Prime Minister Rutte is handling the situation. He is taking strong measures and explains every time why certain choices are being made. What would your approach be if you know that the public might blame you if your decisions in hindsight were too little too late? What would your approach be if your decisions can be seen as too harsh and create an economic bloodbath with small enterprises?

In the same way business leaders are challenged to take decisions to close their consumer facing parts of the business, protect their employees, manage cash flow etc.

So what lessons can we learn from a leadership perspective?

Personal mastery creates a choice

Mastering your personal mindset so you can stay true to your core values and beliefs in times of stress is important for all leaders. This means constantly checking in and becoming aware of how you feel about a situation and how it might impact the lens with which you are trying to make sense of what happens and making decisions. If you for example realise that you are risk averse , you need to be aware that there is a likelihood that you will pick up more or attach higher value to danger warnings or "worst case" scenarios versus if you are a risk taker. When you are aware of your own patterns and your state of mind, you have a choice on how to react or deal with the situation, which you did not have if you were not aware of it.

Separating facts from feelings... and acknowledging both

In times of uncertainty I find the best leaders capable of making clear distinctions between the facts and feelings associated to the situation. That does not mean they only use facts to make decisions, they take a step back and check in what are objective facts and what are feelings. For example in the Netherlands Prime Minister Rutte stated the fact that it is not proven that children pass on the virus quicker than adults, hence his decision to not close schools made sense for him. He did acknowledge the fact that many parents might be concerned and also allowed them to choose to not send their kids to school without repercussions.

Personal judgment and responsibility versus decisions made from the top

Leadership does not only come from the top. What is striking to me in this crisis is that people look at the government to take decisions and prohibit certain things to prevent the virus from expanding even more. We all have access to great information from virus experts, news updates etc. So surely we are aware that it is common sense to be cautious and keep social distance, that throwing a big party with students might not be a great idea, that when you feel ill, you might want to self-isolate in order to not infect others? Still it takes rules from the government for us to change behaviour. Until it hits us from closer by. If you have a relative who is severely suffering, you don't need the government to tell you anymore. What we need to unlock more in our teams and organisation is the self-steering capacity that we all possess.

Maslow hierarchy of needs is at play

In moments like this we see the most basic human behaviours at play and as leaders it is important to recognise this and communicate openly about them with our teams or people in our communities. The fact that so many people run to the supermarkets to take in 5 weeks worth of toilet paper and food is without any doubt linked to the physiological needs of having

enough food etc. Even if supermarkets and governments try to communicate clearly there is no need to run to stores, our mind wipes out the "no" part of this sentence and our innate feeling of scarcity takes over and we "just to be sure" go to the stores and buy also more than we need. Decisions to close all retail stores except the "crucial for life" ruling that was decided for in Italy in Spain can be seen n the same context. The need for safety and personal health are closely linked to the above and are also what government is using as reasons on why we need to adhere to the guidance of staying home, respecting social distancing etc. Very effective as we cater the communication to our basic need of safety. One level up is the need for love and belonging and that is why the "courtyard singing" video in Italy went viral so quickly as everyone loves seeing how these people were bonding together and gave all viewers that seem great feeling that we humans are in this together and find a way to be positive... Being aware as a leader that this is at play with yourself and your community or team helps you address their concerns in a better way.

Allow room for dialogue and create a safe environment

Lastly I have experienced myself that allowing room for your teams to voice their opinion, express their concerns and have a dialogue in a safe environment is crucial to create understanding, buy-in to the direction and move forward. Genuinely listening to each other, trying to understand different point of views without holding on to our own mental models or beliefs are necessary behaviours for our teams to feel safe and part of the solution.

Of course all above lessons are not only in situations like this important, they are very basic and yet fundamental parts of leadership that anyone can continue to grow in.

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