6 April 2020

Leadership in adversity
hope, opportunity, transformation.

“You will see the dawn to come after this night engulfing our world; you need to see it and call it and prepare for it with all your strength.”

— German poet Rainer Maria Rilke

The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, calls it “humanity’s darkest hour.”

In a press briefing held on April 3 in conjunction with the World Health Organization, Georgieva said “this is a crisis like no other. Never in the history of the IMF have we witnessed the world economy coming to a standstill. We are now in recession. It is way worse than the global financial crisis. And it is a crisis that requires all of us to come together.”

The death toll continues to rise across the world. For many, hope is receding as we struggle to absorb the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Few will go untouched in one form or another by this experience. 

Though it is hard to fathom, there is hope. 

Hope in the selfless service medical professionals and essential workers are providing during such troubled times; in the sense of community we have discovered even in self-isolation; in the words and actions of those leaders who choose to lead and inspire.

Furthermore, we can hold fast to the resilience of the human spirit to overcome the sternest of challenges, even this one. In these dark times, human ingenuity lights the spark that illuminates the future. 

Our capacity to transform crisis into opportunity has enabled humanity to emerge from other dark periods. Within crisis is agency, the capacity to decide. To make a decision and take action. Leaders must understand and take on board this idea: In adversity is the opportunity for transformation.

In response to the current crisis, at The CEO Circle, we are running weekly virtual conferences in confidential surroundings with a diverse group of CEOs and leaders of industry from across the country. This is in addition to the more frequent virtual Circle meetings being held to discuss the current situation. 

The meetings have provided rich learnings about crisis management during these unprecedented times. They have also provided ample evidence that businesses with an agile and positive mindset can survive and even thrive during this period, and hopefully beyond.

Serious cash flow issues are constricting the majority of businesses; supply chains are haphazard; and consumer demand is uneven and unpredictable, non-existent in some sectors and skyrocketing in others. Organisations are having to make rapid-fire calls daily across every business function to survive. 

Sadly, many good businesses will not survive. Some great organisations may even fall by the wayside. But what we are hearing is those adaptable companies that can spot an opportunity and deploy and deliver quickly are finding success even in these grim times.

Importantly, a select number of business leaders are thinking beyond the next move to ‘Day One’, when we get back to some form of normality or as I call it ‘the new norm’. A semblance of stability and continuity will resume, we don’t know what it will look like, but leaders need to have a plan and a vision, so they are ready for when it does arrive.

These leaders are gathering their teams together to run multiple projections across short, mid and long-term scenarios. They are making hard decisions educated by data and informed by the wisdom and experience of trusted colleagues and advisers. They are thinking about how they can serve their customers, clients, stakeholders, and crucially, the community. 

These are the leaders who instil confidence. They have a belief, plan and vision for survival, regardless of the realisation that tougher times await around the corner. They know they will get through this as a collective, not pausing for even a single moment, helping their people focus on what matters, maintaining the momentum they have worked so hard to build. 

These leaders are making the most of the current situation to bring their teams closer, communicate, connect and engage, building relationships that will stand them in good stead and ahead of the rest. Building trust and rapport, going deeper and making the most of this precious time to build an unbreakable bond. If we can get through this together, we can get through anything.

Over the past decade, many organisation gave lip service to mantras such as ‘digital transformation’, ‘collaborative thinking’ and ‘customer-centric approach’ without actually integrating them into the operational DNA of an organisation. Amid this crisis, those that paid heed to these ideas find they have the flexibility to adapt to new scenarios and rapidly solve problems. 

One prominent example to have arisen from this crisis is remote working, which so many senior managers had previously viewed with suspicion. People have discovered that remote working is efficient and doable. It is fast becoming the new normal. Already, managers and employees are planning to make remote work the default setting for their organisations even beyond this crisis. 

As well as getting us through this period of self-isolation and widescale lockdowns, remote working presents an opportunity for all of us to start integrating our home and work life in a more productive, holistic way. A new mindset is emerging that moves beyond the dead-end work/life balance dichotomy we have laboured under to something more fluid and organic. We have the opportunity to truly integrate the Self into the circles of work, family and community.

On a personal front, now is the time to concentrate on prioritising Self. Focus on you and throw yourself into establishing positive new habits and breaking bad old ones. Exercise, move, walk, run, cycle, yoga, whatever it is to ensure you are at your best. Eat well and find time for stillness and creativity. If you fall over, everyone else will suffer. Make you a priority for yourself and those who depend on you.

Take the opportunity to reconnect with family. One of our Circle members summed it up beautifully this week. He said: “With the entire family working and schooling from home, we eat together 21 times a week. I look at it as 21 opportunities to sit and eat and reconnect with my family. When am I going to get that again?”

Make every moment count and be present in every moment, for you and all those around you. 

Use this time to think differently. We have truly been forced to think outside the box. Way outside the box. This is not a whiteboard scenario. It is happening now. Who would have ever thought we would be in this global pandemic situation, where lives are lost and economies close down globally? Few could have predicted this Black Swan event. Now is the perfect opportunity to reinvent; personally, professionally and within your organisation.

Things are bleak right now. We don’t know how long we will be here. The certainties we held as self-evident only weeks ago have crumbled before our eyes. But rest assured we still have hope. We can decide our response to this crisis. We can take action – move forward calmly – linking purpose and drive to the change you want to see in the world. Your people; all those around you will remember how you responded and what actions you took during this time and more importantly how you made them feel.  

For leaders everywhere, this is the time to stand up and lead, with compassion, empathy, intelligence and positivity. It will test all of us immensely, but it is something we must do for ourselves and those around us. It is something we must do for our greater success.

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