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Leadership in the time of a pandemic

When it comes to finding solutions in a crisis, leaders who respond with compassion and empathy dig deeper. Dalberg Advisors Global Managing Partner Edwin Macharia shares more in Kenya’s Business Daily. The original article can be viewed here.

In the last days of 2019, Chinese officials began reporting cases of an unusual, unknown virus with pneumonia-like symptoms. A few weeks later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) christened it Covid-19, a new variant in the corona family of viruses.

However, no one could have predicted that this strange, new disease would soon turn bustling cities into ghost towns, barricade international borders and inspire incipient panic around the world.

On March 11, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that Covid-19 was to be classified as a ‘pandemic’, a noun that brings to mind deadly acronyms like SARS, MERS, and recent epidemics like Ebola. However, he remained positive on the outlook of the growing emergency posed by the virus.

Closing his remarks, Dr Tedros emphasised the crucial role of leadership in ensuring that we, as a global community, ‘do the right things … and protect the citizens of the world’.

Our response, as leaders, to this pandemic demands that we are intentional in the way we exercise the influence and responsibility invested in us. History will judge the impact of our decisions on the legacy of this virus not just in our localities but also in our regions, and the world at large.

In times of great challenge, I have found it important to have a solid footing on how I approach my own actions and decisions as a leader. Empathy and compassion have proven, time and again, to be vital anchors for me during any crisis, often leading to answers and responses that aren’t immediately obvious.

First critical step

The first critical step for any leader is to analyse the impact Covid-19 will have on their organisation. They must think through their supply chain, for example, considering which inputs might be harder to secure during this crisis as borders close, and how they will be able to deliver their product to customers, whose access to the market will be restricted. This is standard for any leader.

However, a leader who responds with compassion and empathy, digs deeper. They will think about the people behind the “supply chain” and understand what new challenges they too are facing as everyone’s world has changed. They will think in terms of farmers instead of “input suppliers”. They will see kiosk owners who sell their product, rather than “distributors”.

This lens needs to turn internally, too. A strong leader would have already begun evaluating internal processes that are significantly affected by the measures decreed by authorities, or health advice to observe social distancing.

They will already be setting up structures for staff to work remotely and provide them with adequate support. This includes providing employees with equipment to work remotely like laptops, Internet access, and conference calling facilities.

In staff’s shoes

A great leader puts herself or himself in the staff’s shoes, identifying all the challenges that they will likely face, now. For example, if your staff live in communities where there isn’t reliable power, how can you minimise disruptions to their digital productivity? How will working parents balance operating from home with children present? How will they manage their mental health given the propensity of cabin fever when working from home?

These questions have no easy answers but finding ways to address them will have a bearing how your organisation will survive this crisis.

We also need to appreciate that this crisis is rapidly evolving, in velocity and proliferation. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight where all the data we need is within reach. Instead, we must work with information as it comes, in spite of its inaccuracies or partiality. It is an uncomfortable position to be in, not just for you as a leader, but for everyone. Yet it is our only option.

Understand that the community you’re leading will be similarly anxious so clear and consistent communication will be crucial. It’s not just about informing them of decisions made, but explaining why you made them. This is because, as facts change, you will need to adapt appropriately and your people need to anticipate this.

Responding to Covid-19 will require leadership to adopt three unique traits. First, you must be ready to review the situation with fresh eyes as new information and data becomes available, then make the best decision.

Hindsight is a luxury which none of us have. Get comfortable working with imperfect, even incomplete, facts. Be sure to keep updated and be ready to re-evaluate your decisions. Expect plenty of dynamism throughout this crisis.

Evolving crisis

Secondly, you have to be willing to be wrong, even if it means contradicting yourself. It’s a perfectly normal human reaction to double down on something already said or done, even when there is mounting evidence against it. However, this introduces the need to justify a single action. There won’t be time for this during this evolving crisis.

Practically, this means actively engaging with your teams, workforce, and constituents. More than anything, we cannot dwell on decisions already made or work on assumptions intended for another context. Path dependency could prove fatal to your organisation.

Rest assured, that there is no leader who has all the information available to him or her. Even the best-resourced among us, are just two or three steps ahead of where you are. But one step ahead could mean the difference between your organisation surviving or not. So create a team around you to help gather emerging perspectives, and pressure-test your plans for the human impact.

Leadership is a balancing act. You’ll have to ballast uncertainty with compassion and empathy to tide you and your organisation over this crisis.

We have been tasked with the great and arduous task of leading our people through an unprecedented global emergency. We have to lead, not for fame or glory, but because we answered a call to duty that we cannot afford to fail in.

Macharia is the Global Managing Partner of Dalberg Advisors.

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