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Navigating the storm: How to lead in a crisis

Young African Magazine

Navigating the storm: How to lead in a crisis

MRF CEO Judy Sikuza (South Africa & NMU, 2007) shares her thoughts on how we can better prepare for crises – as individuals, organisations, and societies.

Published 12 January 2021

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Through our advancements in forecasting tools, we create a sense of false comfort that we can accurately predict almost everything. The truth, however, is that most crises throughout history have taken us by surprise, in spite of our efforts to see them coming. If we cannot predict the future, are there ways of being that we can practise regularly and systems we can embed that help us better navigate inevitable future storms?

I believe the field of organisational development can provide a valuable perspective on how to lead in a transformational way, even through a crisis. What leaders and organisations do in the good times can help with not just surviving the next crisis. Built-in sustainable practices can also help individuals and institutions to use the opportunity that crisis presents towards the betterment of society.

Antifragile: learning to thrive from disorder

How do we build systems that can prepare us to better navigate unpredictable events? In his 2012 book Antifragile the scholar and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores how different systems handle disruption. Taleb identifies three types of systems: fragile systems, robust systems, and antifragile systems. A fragile system breaks at the slightest disruption, and can entail elements such as an under-resourced health system or the exacerbation of already high levels of unemployment. A robust system can withstand shocks but does not change in response to them. An antifragile system allows the shock to change it and make it better. Without knowing the specific nature of the crisis that may arise, we can build systems that prepare us to better navigate change itself. If we accept that change is inevitable and that the 21st century is going to be shaped by a succession of unpredictable and disruptive events, then ultimately what we want to do as leaders is build antifragile systems that mature when a crisis hits.

But first: myth-busting about the role of leaders

There is a prevailing idea that, despite being only one person, a leader in a particular system must know everything. When a crisis occurs, leaders are expected to have the solution, even if the problem and its dynamics are completely unprecedented. In my conversations with other people in leadership roles, there is a sense that leaders cannot even acknowledge that we may not know the answers, or that we may be feeling highly anxious ourselves. This dehumanises the leader and adds undue expectations that only create more anxiety. A first step to changing this dynamic is a mindset shift in the projections we have towards leadership, where we associate not knowing with failure or incompetence. In this fast-paced, ever-changing world, we need leaders who possess what Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. This includes the ability of leaders to constantly be gaining skills and competences throughout their careers, adjusting and adopting as the environment changes constantly. This requires leaders to be comfortable admitting what we do not know, and build up the competence and capacity to learn quickly on the go. Practising a growth mindset during the ‘stable’ times builds the muscle memory and openness to acquire knowledge on the go in moments of instability, as situations continuously unfold in a crisis.

Additionally, it can never be one person who finds the solution – particularly in the case of complex, multifaceted problems which crises often reveal. We need to reimagine our idea of leadership and decision-making from one person to a perspective of collective leadership. Decisions made during a crisis have the potential to be much more antifragile if they include inputs from diverse perspectives such as advisors, academic experts, grassroots movements, and other members of the broader leadership and organisational network. Society needs to readjust its ‘Superman type’ expectations of leaders, where one person comes into the burning building to save the day. Equally, we as leaders need to open ourselves up to the humility of leading in these uncertain times. We need to let go of these expectations which cloud our judgement, in order to embody the presence that is truly required of us in moments of crisis. Embodying a new kind of leadership mindset begins with the inner work that liberates us to become courageous, visionary and authentic leadership collectives.

Building the vulnerability muscle

Author and researcher Dr Brené Brown speaks to the idea of vulnerability and its power for leaders. In her book Dare to Lead, Dr Brown defines vulnerability as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” She adds: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” Vulnerability is often equated with weakness. Admitting that you don’t know the answers requires risking your ability to be seen as someone who can provide the way forward, but there is actually power in doing this, particularly in a crisis. As a leader it is about allowing yourself a space of reflection to sit with your own anxieties and not be afraid of them. This will help you to better hold space for others as they move through their own anxieties. This a crucial leadership competence in the unpredictable 21st century, a skill known as emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman’s classic theory of emotional intelligence states that there are five components of EQ. The first is self-awareness – are you aware of your own emotions? Second is self-regulation – can you manage and channel your difficult emotions? The third is internal motivation – are you driven by more than money or status? The fourth is empathy – can you acknowledge and sense the emotions of others? Finally, social skills – can you put that all together to manage relationships and inspire a sense of change? In a crisis, leaders will battle uncertainty, fear and the self-doubt that comes with not fully knowing how things will unfold. The breakthrough comes from the ability to tap into your emotional intelligence which you have been practising before the crisis, ground yourself in what you do know, and learn what you do not. It is also about reminding yourself that you are enough and capable of meeting the challenge or you would not be in the leadership role that you find yourself in. And finally, remembering that you are not alone: your leadership team and community of support are there for you, and reaching out to them could not be more important, especially in a crisis.

Having done this work, a leader may say something like this during a crisis: “We are in a situation we have never faced before. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead of us. There will be risks that we have to take, but they will be taken with input from you, and some of the best minds and hearts in our network. We will do our absolute best to mitigate further risks and feed back to you as regularly as possible, including on mistakes made and lessons learnt. And we will collectively commit to trying to use this crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally transform our society for the better.” Such a statement doesn’t provide fake promises, but engenders a sense of inspiration, trust, hope and belief that we will find our way through the darkness together. That’s leadership in action.

Don’t wait for a rainy day to build a resilient organisational culture

Being antifragile is about what you create and make common practice in the good times, which you can draw on to weather the storms. Finances are a good example: individuals and organisations that save when things are going well will have more resources to draw from during the hungry season. Organisations therefore need to build resilient organisational cultures during the more stable periods, as that is what people will draw from during the harder times. Professor Edgar Schein, considered the father of the study of organisational culture, once said that organisational culture is most simply defined as “the way we do things around here”. This includes how you live out your vision, mission and organisational values on a daily basis. It is a much harder task to produce excellence during a crisis if you have not been practising that value on a daily basis as an organisation. A crisis is the time when you dig deep and tap into the organisational values and culture that you have been building, motivating you to say ‘yes’ to the crisis and enter it courageously because you know it will make you better. In addition to getting clear on the core values that drive your organisation, what practices might leaders build during the good times, to best set the organisation up for the rainy days or the unpredictable, devastating storms?

Build a culture of authenticity

As much as leadership is about being authentic yourself, it is also about continuously creating space for team members to speak honestly about where they are. A crisis inevitably involves a loss of what we have known. Leaders need to be aware that team members will be in different places on the journey of change. A useful tool for understanding team members’ response to difficulty and disruption is psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of the five stages of grief. In the first stage – denial – we pretend that the painful event is not happening. As the reality sinks in, we reach the stage of anger: lashing out in frustration to avoid the even more painful feelings of loss and powerlessness. The third stage is bargaining: “OK, maybe I can get used to this, as long as it doesn’t go on too long.” Then we reach depression as we understand the finality and reality of the situation, feeling overwhelmed and unable to go on. Finally we reach the fifth stage of grief – acceptance.

The stages of grief can unfold in nonlinear ways, and manifest differently for different people. The leadership collective should hold space for members of the team during a crisis, helping people to process where they are and sending a humanising message that it’s OK to not be OK. Feeling seen and supported will enable your team to find their way through the crisis, continuing to deliver the best they can while drawing strength from colleagues. Such a space can only be successfully held if it is part of the organisation’s culture during the ‘stable’ times, one that permits people to show up as their authentic selves and be able to share without fear of judgement when they are not OK. Put differently, if you are regularly reflecting, being vulnerable and creating spaces for your team to do so, it won’t seem abnormal or alarming for anyone in the organisation when they acknowledge that things are tough in times of crisis. Building a culture that embraces authenticity can create a safe space to just be when the hard times hit.

Cultivate a culture of learning and experimentation

In every 21st century institution, it should be part of the culture to embrace the fact that change is a constant. Even if you’ve perfected something and your ratings have been at 90% for years, you can encourage a culture of learning and excellence by continuously asking, “How can we do this differently to be even more impactful in our work?” Embedding a culture of constant experimentation capacitates your team with the skills to try out new ways of doing things, making it a habit for your organisation to be constantly developing and evolving. When a crisis hits, your organisation will be able to see it as part of an ongoing process of change. You can acknowledge that it is an uncertain, external shock rather than a change you chose, but it is still change: so how do you adapt? This ability to accept, value and learn from change during ‘stable’ periods helps you to be antifragile when the big crisis comes up and you are forced to do things differently.

Let go of what no longer serves you

We often resist the pain that comes with change, and thus lose the opportunity to become better as individuals and organisations. We can use moments of crisis to explore what we are challenged to let go of and evaluate practices that no longer serve us. We must ask: what does this crisis have to teach me about myself that I actually know I should be letting go of? What has stood in my way that I haven’t had the courage to face? You’ve got to go in there with courage and face yourself. This is equally true for organisations: what is no longer working, or not serving your purpose? What behaviours have become normalised, that you know foster distrust or apathy in the institution? Viewed from this perspective, a crisis is also a moment to surrender what has served its time and look for opportunities to grow.

The big picture

When independence was obtained in many African countries, citizens were promised brighter futures filled with dignity and prosperity. What the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown, however, is that most African states exist as fragile systems even decades into obtaining freedom. Breaking at the slightest disruption, these systems have too many vulnerable, marginalised people who do not have access to some fundamental human rights such as quality food, shelter, education, healthcare and safety. When we really believe in the sanctity of every human life and in the biosphere that nurtures us, we will begin to take seriously the hard process required to build antifragile systems. We will not be greedy and uncompassionate, misusing our power to advance our own pockets and those close to us. We will not hoard the resources we have, living in a survival mindset even though there is enough for all of us if we shared more of what we have as a collective.

If we as a continent share a vision for our societies to become more equal, just and inclusive, and for our people to have true prosperity and joy, then we as leaders can use this moment of crisis to fundamentally shift things at their core. We have a chance to let go of the old systems that have not worked for us, evidenced by the continued inequality gap between the haves and have-nots that has been revealed during crises. We need to redefine the way we organise ourselves as a society away from silos and divisions, and provide opportunities that allow all people to fulfill their potential regardless of their background or creed. It is my hope that we can demonstrate courageous leadership during our current global crisis to try to shift the dynamics in our society that continue to keep us in survival mode. This is our moment of opportunity to really thrive as a people – we have all the resources we need as a continent. Now is the time to activate the collective leadership driven by ethics, courage, innovation and competence that we have spread across our African nations. Our mandate to build a more humane society is clear, and we are coming for everything!

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