COVID-19 has ramped-up the pressure on most of us, if not all of us in fundamental ways. This pressure includes a sudden change to our working landscape, challenges to our systems and processes, disruption to our way of life, heightened emotions and most seriously, a threat to the health and wellbeing of so many people.

Under this kind of pressure we’ll see examples of leadership excellence and examples of leadership failure. To strive for excellence, these are ten principles I suggest keeping front-of-mind, based on my time Coaching with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team, (post-earthquake recovery) and my neurolinguistic base as a Coach and Trainer.

  1. WELLBEING: Make wellbeing a key agenda item in your meetings. Your business needs to get through this crisis in good shape and so do your people.
    Big change events are stressful and it’s a mistake to assume the wellbeing of your people is a given. Your time may be under pressure, yet giving breathing space for people state how they are, lets people know you care. It may also be wise to step-up activities that further promote wellbeing. Sudden change can be emotionally taxing, wellbeing practice avoids burnout and sustains performance. Down the line, you ultimately want your people to reflect back on these challenges and know they were cared for.
  1. EMOTIONS: Strong emotions will be present. Don’t judge and avoid assuming what they need. Instead, listen and ask how you can help.
    People will manage sudden change in different ways. Some people have found the COVID-19 lockdown a breeze, whilst others have found it very tough for varying reasons. As an example, it’s too easy to tell someone who’s just lost their job to ‘be positive’ and ‘think bigger’. Sometimes it’s more powerful to just listen, (let them debrief) and then ask, ‘what can I do to help?’
  1. STRATEGY: Your strategic plan may have been thrown into chaos. So simplify as much as you can, rework priorities and stick to the essentials.
    Prioritise what’s important and urgent. This will frame-up what needs responding to immediately. It also means being very specific about what activities will be parked in order to refocus peoples effort. Initially less is more, divide tasks where you can and set clear outcomes. Let the core purpose of your business guide you.
  1. ADAPT: Adapt your style of leadership to be agile. Be who you need to be, as needs arise.
    As always with leadership, the collective brain is more powerful than a single brain, so you still don’t need to have all the answers. Remain agile. Here are a few styles to step in and out of when the pressure is on.
    • Command Style Leadership: In absolute urgency, you may need to tell people what to do – that’s fine especially when safety is at risk. But be cautious, don’t let this be your dominant style. Even when the pressure is on, you need to collaborate to get the best outcomes.
    • Democratic Style Leadership: Under pressure, this style couples well with Command and Pacesetting Styles, it equates to laser-like solution-focused conversations, where you need peoples input fast to co-design solutions. Under pressure, Democratic Style Leadership it is not a laboured process, it is creativity with pace.
    • Pacesetter Style Leadership: Set timelines to tasks, apply logic to the sequence of urgent deliverables. People will be working under pressure, so ensure you keep wellbeing on the agenda. Look to how you support people to succeed.
    • Visionary Leadership: At some point, depending on the event that’s caused the change, you may need a new vision for your business. Your old vision may no longer deliver what people need, or the event has revealed/created new needs of your customers. Either way, what does an informed and values based future look like for your business? How will you be stronger, wiser and better than before?
  1. CLARITY: Don’t add to an environment of uncertainty. Be clear on what you need from your team as the situation evolves.
    Responding to a sudden change event will create a huge amount of uncertainty and it’s unlikely you’ll be able answer everyone’s questions or concerns. However, you can create certainty in terms of your expectations of people. So when assigning tasks, explain clearly what you need from them, why you need it, when you need it by, plus what autonomy they have to get the task done. You can also set expectations around behaviours and self-care.
  1. FOCUS: Have your people set their focus daily. Ensure tasks are tangible, useful and achievable. Set them up to succeed.
    Checking with people on a regular basis will be important. If people are under emotional pressure it’s better to focus on doing fewer tasks well, than too many. If people are working from home, this will also help them focus in an environment that may have a different set of distractions.
  1. COMMUNICATION: Make communication flow a high priority. Give people good information and stay connected to their needs and concerns.
    Uncertainty is a major stressor on a human being and it comes hand-in-hand with change. Emotions run high when our safety and security are in danger, (or perceived to be) and so provide certainty where possible. Depending on the crisis, daily updates may be useful. These do more than just provide information, they provide certainty of information flow and connection with those who are leading. Even if you have no new information to share, a) use the time to check in with people and b) let people know you’ll share information as it comes in. The longer the gaps in communication, the more room for assumptions and fears to take hold.
  1. LANGUAGE: Check your own language. Avoid words that trigger panic.
    Your people will respond to your emotional cues, and those cues often present through your choice of words and your auditory tone. So keep a check on the metaphors you use, avoid alarmist language, model a solution-focus and speak with clarity and ‘calm’. Ultimately, managing your own state well, will lend to good language.
  1. FILTER: Filter out ‘noise’. Empower your people, don’t pass on other peoples drama.
    You may yourself be hearing drama and panic from, for example, your Manager. If so, choose what to pass on to your own team. Be the buffer. Remove negative emotional charge, provide useful information and help people focus by reducing alarm.
  1. SELF-CARE: Be good to yourself too. You’re a leader, so take care of others AND yourself.
    People don’t need martyrs, they need leaders who are in the zone. There will be stretch that you will feel too, so check in on your own state daily, ensure you invest in your own care even it’s via snatches of time when you can. Prioritise and push back on non-urgent items, empower your team and have a clear cut-off time for when work ends and stick to it yourself.

These are just a few leadership principles that are important when leading people through sudden change. From your experience, what’s also important? What in your experience has been essential? Please share in the comments section.

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