The crisis leadership imperative pt1

In this two part article David Buchanan and Steve Macaulay explore the importance of trust, empathy, sharing and transparency when leading in times of disruption.

The current coronavirus crisis has put leadership on the spot. People expect leaders to give them answers, to provide solutions, to create certainty. But the chair of a major consultancy resigned recently after telling employees to ‘stop moaning’ about the pandemic’s effects.

This was not the reassurance and understanding they expected and needed. Not only had he made little attempt to understand how they felt, but had dismissed their feelings as irrelevant. 

We see similar warning signs elsewhere, and feel it timely to re-evaluate what leaders are saying and doing and to reaffirm the value of keeping their ear to the ground. Leaders need to know and understand their followers, and to show empathy in ‘normal’ times, and especially in a crisis.

It seems that the issues preventing leaders from listening to and engaging with employees are precisely those that mean they must listen and engage

So what are leaders saying in response to the current crisis and why are they often failing to keep in touch with employees. It seems that the issues preventing leaders from listening to and engaging with employees are precisely those that mean they must listen and engage.

Ear to the ground, or head in the sand?

Keeping your ear to the ground and building bridges is one of the most valuable core skills a leader can display. This involves:

  • Trust in the capabilities of others, and making sure that they trust you
  • Empathy for the circumstances, feelings, and perceptions of others
  • Sharing the leadership task using the skills and experience of others
  • Transparency openness and honesty about one’s own thinking, ambitions and doubts

This TEST framework of leadership is easy to explain and understand. Why do many leaders in the current climate not act in this way? Maybe they think it’s not necessary, or they can’t find the time. Both of those claims should be challenged.  L&D must encourage these behaviours in today’s leaders – and more importantly, in the leaders of tomorrow. Today’s crisis will not be the last.

Leaders under pressure

Leadership can be a TESTing role. In a crisis, leaders can be under extreme pressure. The chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, wished in public that he could have his life back while working long hours following the Deepwater Horizon disaster – in which 11 people lost their lives. That (and a couple of other PR mistakes) cost him his job. Leaders need good situational awareness – an ear to the ground – as well as being able to focus on the key issues.

The traps that leaders fall into

As they turn a deaf ear to employees, here are some of the traps that leaders can fall into.

“We have a crisis on our hands”

Some leaders retreat to their bunkers:

  • I have other priorities to deal with – we’ve got major operational and financial problems
  • These issues are all urgent, and they need to be dealt with now
  • I wouldn’t be doing my job if I put these critical issues to one side
  • The ‘soft stuff’ will have to wait until things return to normal, which could take some time.

“We have Teams and Zoom”

Some hide behind technology:

  • Hybrid working models based on WFH and WFA arrangements (work from home, work from anywhere) are working well.
  • Productivity has risen, and we have reduced some office overheads
  • Many employees don’t want to come back to the premises full time.
  • Nobody has complained that they don’t get to speak to the boss anymore.

“Agile is the new normal”

Some are caught up in themes of the moment:

  • Agile is the new organisational paradigm – we need to be able to react rapidly.
  • Decisions need to be taken quickly, to respond to the pace of events. We have no time for consultation exercises or employee participation.
  • Employees don’t need managers poking their nose in every ten minutes.

“Face to face is a thing of the past”

Some see face to face has been overtaken:

  • Our corporate network has improved our communications, teamwork, and information- and knowledge-sharing.
  • We can exchange ideas and collaborate with each other more easily.
  • I can communicate with the whole organisation, or with specific units, instantly, without leaving my office.

These statements might sound convincing, but in practice they undermine the idea that leaders must take time to listen.

“Let’s be nimble, let’s be quick”

Some are breathlessly quick to move on. Remember the old saying: there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it again. The need to make decisions at the pace of change seems to be a compelling reason for avoiding wider participation – which takes time, opens up disputes, and slows the process down. 

But you are still left with the problem that, if people aren’t involved in a decision, and don’t like it, they will do what they can to disrupt implementation. Taking time to consult up front can save a lot of time and effort later. If there really is a time-dependent issue, and a decision must be made, tell people that; they’ll understand. 

But involve them next time.

In part 2 Buchanan and Macaulay further examine  the traps leaders can fall into during a crisis and offer insight and solutions to help L&D support their leaders and managers in times dramatic change.


About the authors

David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development. He can be contacted at:



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