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Leadership through a crisis

With COVID-19 testing leaders and managers across the sector, Rob Coulthard from Judgement Index reflects on the qualities of a great leader in crisis situations.

Strong leadership is vital to providing high-quality care, at all times.

I doubt if there are many care leaders and managers that have ever faced a crisis such as COVID-19 and the subsequent fight to keep their staff and clients safe.

With such an unprecedented scenario, there have also come many demands and pressure points that people have had to react to, sometimes with barely a moment to plan and think about it.

This demand for fast change and action makes leading an organisation and team far more challenging than in normal times. Let’s face it, demands on care leaders and managers are normally quite high, so this extra challenge has required people to do things they may not naturally do. From our experience, the typical performance areas that are sometimes side-lined are those that are critical to survival in a crisis and I would like to explore a few things that – if nothing else – will raise a conscious awareness and hopefully have you reflecting on your own leadership.

The place to start

We are being stretched to the limit in all aspects, physically, mentally and emotionally. Without doubt, you and your people will have faced levels of confusion, uncertainty, and moments where confidence seemed to ebb away. I have spoken with many managers and leaders during the COVID-19 crisis who have commented on certain staff members unexpectedly stepping up and showing a side not seen before, but unfortunately, some have not coped.

Reflecting on my military career, I have known leaders who operate more successfully in peacetime training environments than on an operational tour and vice versa, but the great leaders are those who can perform in both arenas.

Our research on Outstanding Care Managers in 2018 found that outstanding managers/leaders have remarkably similar qualities to high-performing leaders from other sectors, such as the military, and all that seems to change is the landscape and environment; the crisis, threat and risk need to be approached with similar considerations from a leadership perspective.

What might be useful is to reflect against a few of the things that great leaders will do in a crisis, so you can adjust and adopt those behaviours to give yourself the best chance of successfully leading your people in this time.

However, you must start first with ‘leading yourself’. You need to be especially strong in areas such as emotional stability and resilience. The first thing to do is take a good look in the mirror and consider where you are right now, physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m not just restricting this to work either – consider your personal life and other subtle things that impact on you. And, whatever you do, don’t come out with the old saying, ‘Work is work and home is home and I can separate the two’, because you won’t when things get really pressurised and this is when you will make mistakes. The data on outstanding managers illustrated great stress control and resilience in both work and one’s personal life. Is this you?

Let’s agree that you have looked in the mirror and are putting some things in place to support your personal anchors, wellbeing and resilience; if you need any more advice on this there’s a lot on our website. Just remember if you are knackered and burned out you will fail to be intuitive, strategic and problem solve effectively. The consequence is you will potentially fail. So, regarding you, make it a priority and ‘Just do it’, to quote Nike.

The bigger picture

Now, on to the heart of what you should consider, reflect on, and take action on if needed.

Always remember that apart from when you’re leading you, when it comes to leading others it’s never about you. Leadership is about being flexible and adapting to what is in front of you, especially if you have not seen the scenario coming already, so you need to be a chameleon.

Whenever I hear a leader say, ‘It’s my way or the highway’ I immediately see a lack of flexibility and pending failure to succeed or take the team with them. We have written a book on the subject (The Care Leader’s Handbook), but here I’m going to just look at a few key things.

We know situations in a crisis happen quickly, requiring fundamental qualities from leaders, managers, and team players to stay in front of the curve of change and demands of the crisis. Key words you might consider to help stay ahead are:

  • Vision and strategy.
  • Change and empower.
  • Emotion and support.

There are obviously lots of linked factors that go with these words and key will be your capacity as a leader to control the positive mental attitude and emotions of yourself and your people.

Seeing the future

You must take time to plan and look beyond what is in front of you and, literally speaking, become a Jedi Knight, anticipating potential changes that require action.

To see around corners and over the horizon effectively, you need a high energy level and the time set aside to look outwards and strategically plan. This will allow you to see potential threats and create a contingency plan if they happen. This could be anything from staff absences, a lack of resources, or a COVID-19 outbreak. These things need to be brainstormed and solutions written and detailed.

You also need to consider carefully who will cope and is best to step into certain situations, including a contingency if you are not there. Is all your knowledge and planning in your head or could someone simply pick up the plan and get stuck in? Again, think as laterally as you can so you can act quickly and not lose precious time in the moment.

The other factor is that when something happens, your emotions are heightened and you may not think as effectively as you could when the threat is just a potential. I’ve heard this type of contingency called a few things in the past such as emergency operating procedures or ambush drills.

When strategically planning, here are a few things that could add to the quality of what you do:

  • Invite staff from various departments and levels to join conversations. This will give a sense of ownership and trust and they are likely to step up if a situation occurs as they will have visualised and hopefully pre-set the emotional response and behaviour needed.
  • Inform staff of what you are doing and when a meeting will happen. Pre-warn staff so they can start to think about contingency themselves.
  • Make the environment safe by creating a simple, open and transparent communication pathway without comeback (make a rule of no egos in these sessions). This is especially important after an incident, where meetings need to be focused on performance not just the result of what happened. Don’t blame, just deal with performance when things go wrong and if there is time to coach and train then consider the long-term benefits of this style.
  • Encourage staff to practice, and make strategic thinking a task for everyone throughout the entire workforce. Encourage innovation and risk management from everyone. Make it safe to speak out and do not rely on being told things. Those who are shy or lack confidence might not volunteer their thoughts so engage and ask, using open questions.

The flexible chameleon

Back to being a flexible chameleon. When we run a Leadership Academy, this subject is always a point when delegates go quiet and reflect. A sense of awareness seems to happen of how being a leader is never about you. It’s about your ability to influence others, considering in the process their skills, motivation and coping capacity as well as the severity of threat and the outcome you want. The sum should allow you to adopt the appropriate style of leadership, and work out how best to communicate to get the desired result.

The style of leadership you adopt will be based on the words you use and, according to the great Daniel Golman, there are six typical styles:

  1. Command.
  2. Pace setting.
  3. Democratic.
  4. Coaching.
  5. Affiliative.
  6. Visionary.

We wrote a whole chapter on this topic in the book along with an assessment to give you a sense of your current dominance in each style. During a crisis, leaders often shift to a command and tell style, but this doesn’t mean other considerations should not be made, especially if the scenario gives space and time or people need you to behave in a particular way. For instance, if people are panicking, you may have to step in closer and be amongst them, letting them know you are one of them and all in it together (affiliative).

If you have highly experienced staff who deal well with pressure, maybe have a democratic approach if time allows. You will probably find yourself using several styles at once and typically they are a visionary style of ‘that’s where we are going’ and command style of ‘and this is how we are going to get there’.

Note, command does not necessarily mean being a bossy, loud type; it’s the words you use, not the tone and temperament, that dictate the style.

Know your team

In everything we have discussed so far, the most important thing as a leader is to manage your own mindset and emotions and those of your staff. If you or your people lose it emotionally you will probably fail. It’s therefore so important to really understand your people and be able to read them. Ask yourself, to what extent do you really know every member of your team? What are their emotional trigger points, what are their current worries?

As I highlighted before, having a solid foundation in your own world will support you to get the best from your working world. Go ask and don’t just guess because you never know what is going on behind the eyes of some of your people and it might just be they need you.

To summarise a few take-home points for reflection:

  • You need to be rock solid and energised yourself to be as effective a leader as you can.
  • Plan and engage in regular strategic sessions to offset threat and risk.
  • Have contingency plans drawn up for as many eventualities as possible.
  • Be prepared and start becoming that flexible chameleon so you can adopt the appropriate situational leadership style.
  • Develop your emotional intelligence and coping mechanisms for both supporting yourself and influencing others. It’s about awareness and management of emotions. The more movement required from people, the more emotion you will need to create.
  • Be prepared to be tough and ruthless if needed. It’s better to feel bad for being a bit tough on someone rather than conscious of a serious incident because you didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

Finally, if you do have staff who may be suffering with traumatic stress from recent incidents, we have produced some material and support documents which can be freely downloaded from our website.

Rob Coulthard is Managing Director of Judgement Index UK Ltd. Email: Twitter: @judgementindex. You can purchase The Care Leader’s Handbook online.

How are you working on your leadership during this pandemic? What have you learnt about yourself and how has that helped you lead your teams? Share your experiences and give feedback on this article below.


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