Leading in a crisis

00:00 We think of a great leader as the unwavering captain who guides us forward through challenge and complexity. Confident, unwavering leaders, armed with data and past experience have long been celebrated in business and politics alike.

00:14 But sometimes and certainly now, a crisis comes along that is so new and so urgent that it upends everything we thought we knew.

00:22 [The Way We Work]

00:25 [Made possible with the support of Dropbox]

00:27 One thing we know for sure is that more upheavals are coming. In a completely interconnected world a single political uprising, a viral video, a distant tsunami, or a tiny virus can send shock waves around the world. Upheaval creates fear, and in the midst of it people crave security, which can incline leaders toward the usual tropes of strength, confidence, constancy, but it won’t work. We have to flip the leadership playbook.

00:56 First, this type of leadership requires communicating with transparency, communicating often. So how can leaders lead when there is so little certainty, so little clarity? Whether you are a CEO, a prime minister, a middle manager or even a head of school, upheaval means you have to ramp up the humility. When what you know is limited, pretending that you have the answers isn’t helpful. Amidst upheaval, leaders must share what they know and admit what they don’t know. Paradoxically, that honesty creates more psychological safety for people, not less.

01:31 For example when the pandemic devastated the airline industry virtually overnight, CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian ramped up employee communication despite having so little clarity about the path ahead, facing truly dire results. At one point in 2020, losing over a hundred million dollars a day, it would have been far easier for Bastian to wait for more information before taking action, but effective leaders during upheaval don’t hide in the shadows. In fact, as Bastian put it, it is far more important to communicate when you don’t have the answers than when you do.

02:06 Second, act with urgency despite incomplete information. Admitting you don’t have the answers does not mean avoiding action. While it’s natural to want more information, fast action is often the only way to get more information. Worse, inaction leaves people feeling lost and unstable.

02:25 When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern laid out a four level alert system very early in the COVID-19 crisis, she lacked information with which to set the level. Despite lacking answers, she did not wait to communicate about the threat with the nation.

02:41 At first she set the level at two, only to change it to four two days later as cases rose. That triggered a national lockdown, which no doubt saved countless lives. Later, when cases began to dissipate, she made subsequent decisions reflecting that new information.

02:59 Third, leaders must hold purpose and values steady, even as goals and situations change. Values can be your guiding light when everything else is up in the air. If you care about customer experience, don’t let go of that in times of upheaval. If a core value is health and safety, put that at the center of every decision you make.

03:19 Now doing this requires being very transparent about what your values are, and in this way, your steadfastness shows not in your plans but in your values. Prime Minister Ardern’s clear purpose all along was protecting human life. Even as the immediate goal shifted from preventing illness to preparing health systems and ultimately to bolstering the economy.

03:42 And finally, give power away. Our instincts are to hold even more tightly to control in times of upheaval, but it backfires. One of the most effective ways to show leadership, if counterintuitive, is to share power with those around you. Doing this requires asking for help, being clear that you can’t do it alone. This also provokes innovation while giving people a sense of meaning.

04:06 Nothing is worse in a crisis than feeling like there’s nothing you can do to help. We follow this new kind of leader through upheaval, because we have confidence not in their map but in their compass.

04:19 We believe they’ve chosen the right direction given the current information, and that they will keep updating. Most of all, we trust them and we want to help them in finding and refinding the path forward.

Leading in a crisis

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