Styling Leadership in the Face of Crises

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A crisis shouldn’t just cause us to rethink our business strategies. They should also encourage reflection and necessary styling of our leadership to meet the relevant needs of the business and team. In the age of ‘woke-ness’, we have seen traditional models of leadership replaced by an approach anchored on trust, collaboration and compassion. Alex Iskandar Liew, Managing Director of COMMUNICATE unpacks his personal experiences and observations running a brand consultancy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are well on our way into the second half of 2020. We entered an era I believe most would not have imagined themselves in but I remain grateful that I’m still able to draw some degrees of comfort and normalcy that I am well, still able to do the things I am passionate about and have a job that enables me to interact with an eclectic mix of characters and a multitude of challenges.

And speaking of challenges, between a global focus on racial injustice and the reality of a global pandemic, most public policy-makers, businesses and brands have been challenged on their perspectives of adapting to a “new normal” or “business as usual or unusual” – including debates over what is considered supportive and inspiring leadership during these trying times.

In the new normal, virtual cycling is becoming a regular activity for me, seen here on a Virtual Tour de France 2020 route

As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and over the course of our national movement control order (MCO), I have had a healthy dose of that, including a momentary disconnection from distractions in search of solitude and peace to enable me to move forward. I believe 2020 presents us an opportunity to embrace and prove that a different way of leading is here to stay and that we may be better off for it.

Without needlessly examining whether specific leadership traits are gender specific, let us instead look at the principles of what works in general. As we find ourselves well into the era of COVID-19, we are suddenly seeing traditional models of leadership upended. In times of crisis, we look to our leaders for trust, compassion and collaboration.

“Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19?” I personally thought Cami Anderson’s article was a very good read and offered a good perspective on active leadership in managing the pandemic. I believe herein all leaders regardless of gender should be exhibiting these traits.

We can, and should, all lean into these traits to have a critical impact in our decision-making and leadership. We have seen examples of this all around us right now and they offer best practices for better, more effective leadership.

Trustworthy

Driving trust through transparency and focusing on facts (with the exception of POTUS) are already critical and illustrations of strong leadership required in the face of crisis. Gone are the days of defining leaders by their total certainty in what’s to come. Instead, vulnerability and the intent to innovate might, in fact, be the new marker of confidence. When communication is focused on known facts with a transparent acknowledgement of what we don’t know, I sense people in general do gravitate to the realism of what they have to contend with, and in the process, make better decisions.

Compassion

We have witnessed many examples of leadership styles standing front and center in communicating the outcome of our current crisis. Our very own Director General at the Ministry of Health (MOH), Dato’ Seri Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah has relentlessly communicated the country’s national statistics of pandemic infection, recovery and fatality through his daily briefings with empathy and concern. There is a sense of genuine compassion for the overwhelming loss, tireless efforts and shifts the national health workers are putting in. These recent experiences demonstrate how emotion and empathy plays a key part of why people are looking to this style of leadership right now.

Collaboration

Risk and ambiguity increase during a crisis because so much is uncertain and volatile. The trap for leaders is trying to control everything. For leaders who have risen up through an organisation or in a single industry, managing a crisis can be exhilarating. Your adrenaline spikes as decisions are made and actions are taken. You experience a feeling of adding tangible value. However, it is like a sugar high that is quickly followed by a crash. Because ultimately, you will find yourself back in an operational comfort zone.

Leading through a crisis requires taking the long view, as opposed to managing the present. You need to anticipate what comes next in order to prepare for the changes ahead. You need to delegate and trust your people as they make tough decisions, providing proper support and guidance based on your experience while resisting the temptation to take over. A willingness to listen to many different voices and to bring teams or individuals into decision-making may very well provide comfort and calm in this environment of unknowns.

As COVID-19 unfolds over an arc of time with a beginning, middle but without an end in sight, it is useful to distinguish what was, is and will be. We had a past of relative stability and predictability, then chaos. There is now an acknowledged disruption. We have begun to embrace a new norm and as the future unfolds, we will witness resilience. The leadership traits mentioned will undoubtedly come into play and may very prove the difference in survival and obscurity.

At COMMUNICATE, we are actively working to engage our team in the company’s business direction and forward plans. In short, we believe in challenging traditional views of how we work together both internally and with our clients, and finding ways to embrace a new, more inclusive normal. Have we done everything right? Probably not. But we’d like to believe that we are making progress to enable us to wade through the current crisis and come out stronger on the other side. We hope all of you are doing the same.