Crisis leadership during the COVID-19 era

Those of us living through the Covid-19 pandemic are witnessing the most profound global changes since the Second World War. In a matter of weeks, we have ushered in a new way of working and relating both on an individual, organizational and societal level.

One of the most pressing questions that needs to be answered in this time of unprecedented upheaval and change is ‘’what is the task of leadership?’’ We are all bearing witness to graphic examples of leaders who are doing it well, and those that are floundering as this crisis calls forward essential new leadership qualities.

So, what are these qualities and how can we as leaders adjust our approach to step into the leadership vacuum that exists over many teams, organisations and communities in this time of crisis?

It’s tempting to believe that during times of crisis, a bewildered populace or workforce need heroic leadership – the kind that assures us that everything is in hand and that our leaders are somehow ahead of the ‘’game’’ and in a position to assure a good tomorrow. But big promises ring very thin when results are not forthcoming and there is the absence of authentic relational connection.

Others might suggest that visionary leadership is needed to focus our imagination and motivate us to work for a better future. But vision too is short lived. It may promise a future, but when we are near the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid and contending for safety and security, our commitment to visions is easily diverted.

Neither of the above two leadership styles (even though they are mobilizing) is needed during a crisis. What is needed is something far less spectacular and far less visible. We need leaders who are authentic, personal and relatable.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, in his excellent HBR article The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership, describes this leadership quality as ‘’holding’’. He defines it as:

“the way another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what is happening in times of uncertainty”

On a practical level, what this means is that leaders have to think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them harness their resources and relationships.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the impact of ‘’holding’’ is to notice what happens when it is absent. When leaders fail to ‘’hold’’ their people, bewilderment, anxiety, anger, and fragmentation ensue.

The concept of ‘’holding’’ is a well-known one in the world of coaching. In fact, the term was coined by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), who used it to refer to the supportive environment that a therapist creates for a client.

He compared holding by a therapist to the nurturing and caring behavior a mother engages in with her child that results in a sense of trust and safety. Seen in this way, ‘’holding’’ is highly linked to empathy and reflects a more nurturing and feminine approach to leadership than the masculine idea of ‘’leading from strength’’.

In coaching, the term “holding’’ is most often coupled with the idea of creating a safe and respectful space for another to explore their own thinking, shift their awareness and come up with some new and empowering choices for moving forward. Creating a positive impact in this way is highly dependent on the quality of relationship that exists between client and coach and the same is true in a leadership context.

So how can leaders ‘’hold’’ their people well in this time of crisis? Holding requires a range of leadership skills, including the ability to show care and empathy without being derailed by the suffering of others or being drawn into their subjective interpretation of events such that they become entrenched.

Borrowing from approaches in coaching, there are a number of assumptions or mindsets that leaders can adopt to enable them to ‘’hold’’ others well:

1. People have innate potential

How a person behaves during a crisis is not reflective of their potential or capability. Astute leaders can zoom out of the current picture to see the potential of the individual and to help them connect with their own resourcefulness, rather than feeling the need to swoop in and rescue them!

2. You can show respect without agreeing

People usually make the best choices they can with the information they have available to according to their map of reality. Leaders need to respect their people’s map of reality even if they don’t agree with it.

Through empathetic listening and insightful questions, leaders can invite their people to open up their lens on reality and identify new choices for moving forward. Resist the temptation to try to ‘’persuade’’ people out of their current view of reality. Remember: people don’t care what you know, until they know how much you care!

3. People already have their answers

Many leaders avoid ‘’holding’’ because they fear being put in a position where they can’t meet the expectations of others. This anxiety is based on the assumption that the role of leadership is to provide answers.

But there is a ‘’dark’’ side to this. Whilst providing answers can be helpful, it can also make others feel ‘helpless’ and can potentially reinforce self- doubt, limiting beliefs or a level of dependency.

Leaders that ‘’hold’’ assume that others have the ability to solve their own problems and know how to strike the balance between providing necessary information and allowing others to come up with their own solutions.

Remember that your answer is not necessarily the best solution to ‘’their’’ problem.

4. Sometimes words get in the way

There are times when people need to be ‘’held’’ without words. Situations of grief and loss often defy words, and all that is required is empathy a comforting presence. Leaders that ‘’hold’’ others well shake off the pressure to offer platitudes to those experiencing existential pain and are able to simply be ‘’with’’ them in a supportive and congruent way.

Petriglieri distinguishes between interpersonal holding and broader institutional holding. He suggests good leaders provide both, in a crisis and beyond.

Insititutional “holding” is about strengthening the structure and culture of the organization by, for example, putting in place policies and procedures that reassure people about their job security or how the organization is responding in the crisis. This includes transparent information sharing, clarity on work expectations and conditions, sharing of key priorities and informed interpretations of possible next steps. Without this practical ‘’holding’’ any expressions of sympathy and understanding ring hollow.

Interpersonal “holding”, on the other hand, is about being present and available to people. This is expressed relationally, so leaders need to be available to connect frequently with their people and witness their immediate experience and concerns. It requires acceptance and non-judgment, so that others have permission to feel whatever they are feeling without being shamed.

As we have seen, a key assumption for these leaders is that others have the innate potential to find their own solutions. Sometimes ‘’holding’’ means listening deeply without requiring the need to provide answers. It also involves the skill of acknowledging and witnessing distress and difficulty without reinforcing powerlessness.

For many leaders who have focused primarily on building functional expertise, the prospect of ‘’holding’’ may seem very daunting, but it is nothing more or less than an opportunity to bring more humanity into leadership and to connect with the shared vulnerability of a workforce in crisis.

Armed with a few helpful mindsets and coaching skills, leaders that step up into this more human space are in a position to forge new ways of working and powerfully engage their people through the crisis and beyond.

Tracy May is an Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker and CEO of The Diversitas Group, A UAE based organisation that offers consulting, training and leadership development support to clients who want to take the next step in their diversity and inclusion (D&I) journey.

Get free coaching and mindfulness resources

Join our community for free and get a host of free resources, including our guide to becoming a professional coach, access to our coaching webinars, a free mindfulness e-kit and much more.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.