A new and better way to lead: lessons from the COVID-19 crisis

The global pandemic and associated economic shock have thrown the world off course, taking us into uncharted territory. In such crisis situations, people running organisations often ‘revert to type’. They tend to take a narrow view and try to stay within comfort zones in the face of extreme uncertainty. It’s understandable. Relying on their experience and expertise makes them feel in control amid the chaos.

We believe there’s a new and better way to lead, whether it’s in times of crisis or not. It’s a case we set out in The New Leadership Agenda. Our approach opens an important opportunity for leaders to build organisations that contribute to more engaged workforces, meaningful and impactful outcomes for customers, and a healthier planet. By embracing this agenda, leaders unlock the ingenuity stifled in their organisations and accomplish incredible things.

Naturally, when the current crisis struck, we were anxious to see what would happen. In the urgent rush to survive, how would leaders react? Fast forward more than six months and we’re pleased to see that there are many examples of leaders who have used the crisis  as an opportunity to drive that new leadership agenda in their organisations to respond in the short-terms in ways that will sustain their organisations over the long-term.

Nurturing human optimism

Optimism finds opportunities, not threats. Humans are biologically wired for this. Optimism releases serotonin, the potent neurotransmitter that unlocks neural pathways and inspires creative thinking. Repeatedly, in our experience, nurturing optimism has been key to fostering innovation and creativity.

In recent months, leaders have found that optimism, built on doing things that directly help people in the crisis, generates a collective sense of purpose that unlocks ingenuity. In the early days of the crisis in the US, drugstore chain Walgreens drew up a list of essential products customers could shop for online and pick up at the chain’s drive-through pharmacy windows. In the UK, restaurant chain Leon teamed up with rivals to feed essential medical workers.

In both these examples, great leaders have found ways to enable people to ideate and innovate with purpose, to give them hope that they can make a positive difference in bleak times. The key now is to nurture that human optimism through crisis recovery to drive towards ever greater success.

Empowering teams to innovate

Partly because of the need for speed and the global vulnerability we all felt, leaders have dispensed with the usual hierarchy involved in decision-making and achieved startling results. They’ve needed to rely on people ‘on the front line’ to make choices in the heat of the moment. And when dealing with complex challenges, they’ve had to let go of the reins a little and trust people to manage their part of the whole. The interchange of leadership skills and styles has transformed the ethos of teams. This has led Don Berwick, former health advisor to President Obama, President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and International Visiting Fellow at The King’s Fund, to say there should be only one rule for front-line healthcare  staff: “do what you know to be the right thing... and if you don’t know, ask.”

Nowhere have the results of empowered teams been clearer than in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). New multi-disciplinary teams have collaborated to get things like virtual clinics and appointments up and running. Leaders have empowered their people to make decisions that would usually need to go through lengthy senior approval processes. Meanwhile, carers can provide remote care at scale thanks to an innovative partnership we’ve designed with Amazon Web Services.

This empowerment has been vital to rapid reactions to the current crisis, and we can’t afford to slip back into business as usual when the pressures ease. It’s in times of crisis that we uncover new and better ways to lead. Leaders must acknowledge the successes they’ve had when giving people more autonomy and build a legacy of trust that endures in more conventional times.

Building evolving organisations

Leaders have transformed their organisations overnight to do things that would usually take months, if not years, to plan and put into practice. Airlines like Etihad have transformed their businesses, adapting empty passenger planes to ferry vital cargo around the world as supply chains struggled with the disruption. And many organisations have accelerated digital transformations to expand online services or offer them for the first time. The American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) and American Thoracic Society (ATS), for example, launched the Clinician Matching Network in just two weeks with our help. It’s a new digital system that matches available doctors with hospitals in need, improving patient care by ensuring the pandemic doesn’t overwhelm healthcare systems.

Even ambitions to promote healthy lifestyles and cut pollution have come to fruition at pace. In the US, the Seattle Department of Transportation has decided to permanently close 20 miles of residential streets to through traffic. There’d been temporary closures to provide more room for walking or cycling at a safe distance.

As the crisis has progressed, leaders have helped their organisations pivot, develop and evolve in an agile way. They’ve built adaptive cultures and behaviours that, only a few months ago, were simply ‘nice-to-haves’, and are now fundamental to the improved organisational agility that needs to be here to stay. Many organisations are exhaling, free of the legacy constraints that restricted them in the past. They’re seeing the benefits of this ability to adapt at pace and now need to find ways to harness this new culture for the long-term.

Seeking inspiration in surprising places

During the pandemic, it’s often been impossible for organisations to rely on their usual supplies or suppliers. They need to look elsewhere for inspiration. For example, in our work coordinating critical national efforts to produce ventilators for the UK Cabinet Office, we sourced over 40 million components from around the world in a matter of weeks. We used our ingenuity to locate and, in some cases, commission the manufacture of these parts, in one instance re-starting a factory in Mexico which had been mothballed. And then we found creative ways to get the parts back to the UK as quickly as possible, including teaming up with the Ministry of Defence to use their aircraft.

There have also been challenges for organisations that traditionally rely on face-to-face interaction. Who could imagine corporate team building being effective through work computers, for example? Usually, these events get people away from the workplace, out from behind the computer and spending time with colleagues doing ‘off-line’ activities together. Yet, with consumer experiences rapidly moving online, events company Zing found inspiration to offer ingenious virtual sessions to help teams bond remotely.

And in our work with organisations to improve their agility, we are now running programme increment planning events virtually (exploiting tools like MS Teams and Miro) for hundreds of people every quarter to ensure they continue to deliver successfully and without pause.

These examples highlight the importance of learning from the wider world. Some of the most impactful breakthroughs come not from brand-new technologies but from past inventions applied in ingenious ways. By remembering this as the world moves into its new reality, leaders can help their organisations continue to innovate successfully.

Our new leadership agenda

During the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen many leaders embracing our New Leadership Agenda. They’re nurturing human optimism, empowering teams to innovate, building evolving organisations and seeking inspiration in surprising places. In so doing, they’re unlocking human ingenuity. Their job now is to make those actions part of their new reality. The opportunity is there to seize. Reverting to old ways of working isn’t an option.

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