In the era of COVID-19, leading is a privilege

This era will define our leadership for years to come.

Getty Images
Getty Images

If there's one thing I've learned from talking to colleagues in China and Singapore, it's that this will not pass quickly. We won't be able to simply turn the lights back on and restore our previous sense of well-being, lifestyle and economy.

But even though it will be more like slowly turning a dimmer switch, pass it will. And as the light returns it will reveal a new normal, a changed world in terms of people, operational models, technology and cultures.

We're all unsettled by uncertainty. But being a leader is a privilege right now—it's the ultimate test of your character, skills, and business acumen. It's time for you to show to your team and your stakeholders why you have the role.

There is no playbook to pull out. Everyone is dealing with this crisis in real-time. Businesses are trying to simply keep moving the best way they can. Governments are scrambling for health supplies and issuing countless laundry lists of what we can and can't do. It's confusing. It breeds anxiety about our health and that of our family and loved ones, and of course our jobs.

The first rule of crisis management is to expect more bad news. And yes, this will get worse before it gets better. The global COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to represent the biggest collective leadership challenge since World War II, so we all need to step up and lead. That means getting out front and communicating with transparency, reality and reassurance.

The pressure test of purpose beyond profit

For business, it will pressure test whether they really have a purpose beyond profit, as many a CEO has touted in recent years. This goes way beyond changing a logo or sharing public information messages. Those play a positive role of course. But this test goes to the heart of your corporate character and the decisions you're making.

How can you protect the sustainability of your business while at the same you protect your people? Cash flow becomes the crucial factor for many of these decisions, while profit takes a back seat.

In this unprecedented situation, leadership is driven as much by instinct as experience. We need to bring a sense of optimism to teams and stakeholders, yet also present the reality and a roadmap through it. We are in the now and action is needed. But it must be proportionate and measured. How you as a leader, and as a human, behave today and over the next few months is critical to set your business up for success when we come out on the other side.

Learnings from the global financial crisis

The biggest difference I see from how business dealt with the global financial crisis versus the ongoing fall-out from COVID-19 is the empathy that leaders are using.

During the financial crisis, too many businesses carried out prescriptive and brutal decisions with little to no humanity in mind. Whether it was people losing their jobs via texts or external 'consultants' in gray suits executing decisions, there were countless poor examples.

I can still remember seeing people on the London Tube with boxes of their belongings on their laps after having lost their jobs, or knowing others who had lost their homes. It was right in your face.

This time we are stuck in our homes so we don't see it in front of us. Instead, it is playing out virtually on TVs, tablets, smartphones and computers; a very different experience.

Of course, there will always be bad examples. But even those industries being immediately and devastatingly hit by the pandemic appear to be trying to do things more humanely.

Governments around the world have also stepped up with economic stimulus packages, protection for homeowners and tenants, and other measures. I don't want to debate the politics of those actions. It's more that they realize that this is no one's fault, so we need to collectively and collaboratively find a way through.

People first

We need to put people first in our business. Protecting as many as we can, from a health and wellness perspective and from an economic perspective. It's no longer about shareholder values, but about living your values and driving value for all your stakeholders, but in particular, your staff.

As leaders, we must encourage them, bring a sense of calm, give direction, confidence and hope. And we should do it with integrity, agility and, most importantly, humanity.

Whilst this is an incredibly difficult time, we will also learn much from it. The pandemic is a reminder that constraints can breed a huge amount of innovation and creativity.

The financial crisis helped to create the shared economy and new business models. We saw greater accountability, greater regulation of financial systems, social movements that held leaders to account, as well as an incredible amount of technological innovation.

Clear communications and soft skills

Leadership requires regular, simple, concise messaging to explain what is being done, when it is being done, and why it is being done. But often it's not what you do, but rather how you do it.

This is where soft skills come in. You learn a lot in business from watching how not to do something, from watching employees are treated as numbers to improve balance sheets or to satisfy the ego of a leader who wanted to demonstrate he was making decisions.

Right now, difficult decisions need to be made, and even harder decisions may yet need to be made. But, regardless, your people need to feel respected and that they're being dealt with honestly, transparently and with compassion.

Bringing teams closer together

Since everything seems to be so dark right now, I've been thinking about how to bring some lightheartedness to my teams every day.

During our Zoom meetings, we introduce our kids, and share memes, cocktail recipes, fitness tips, WFH strategies, even tours of our homes. We're even having virtual coffee breaks and happy hours. I feel it is bringing us even closer together than when we in our offices.

I have been encouraging my teams to move away from email and instant messaging, to instead pick up the phone or make video calls. The human connection is so important right now.

I have also begun reaching out each day to a client and a colleague, just to see how they are. I don't have an agenda. I'm just checking in. Empathy for one another will keep us connected, get us through this, and pave the path for future success.

I believe the sense of togetherness and partnership we cultivate now with teams and clients will be paid back in spades. It will define our leadership, our company's culture and its purpose for years to come.

That's why I believe that it's a genuine privilege for us to lead right now— as long as we do it with empathy.

James Wright is the New York-based global CEO of Red Havas and global chairman of Havas PR Global Collective.

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