What does good leadership mean in times of crisis? Is there a difference to good leadership practices in peaceful times?
In times of crisis, poor management immediately shows its negative effects. Contrary to this, good management leads to innovation and growth in relatively quiet times, whereas in tough times it might even guarantee the survival of the organization. In addition, good management work creates trust and stability among employees – even in difficult times. So what composes good leadership?
Pillar 1: Asking questions
The interview with MIT researcher Hal Gregersen in the current issue of the Harvard Business Manager (see link to article below) is titled with the statement: “Questions are the answers”. Hal Gregersen describes the fact that leaders or executives are wrongly made believe that they need immediate answers to every question. Let’s be honest: it is still a very common belief that quick answers, dynamic actions and fast decision making foster carriers. However, the crux is, for difficult problems and complex challenges quick solutions simply do not exist. Hal Gregersen references companies such as Tesla, Patagonia or Amazon, which intentionally employ people, who want to solve complex problems. These people only have the chance to start with questions, which are open and firstly deal with understanding the problem itself.
Pillar 2: Enable creativity via diversity
Complex challenges often need creative solutions. Particularly in times of crisis of unprecedented scale solutions need to be developed from scratch. Only very few people are able to understand complex problems in its entirety and design new solutions on their own. Most likely those challenges can be resolved via adaptive complex dynamic systems. A diverse team can be such a system! The diversity of employees, when working together, causes tension within the team. This tension in turn creates instabilities within the team, and as a consequence these instabilities offer the possibility to change well practiced patterns. That is the way how new ideas arise! Hence, the responsibility of the executive is to cater for diversity and inhomogeneity within the teams, at least within those, which are charged with complex tasks. Professor Peter Kruse devoted himself to this topic already many years ago, but it has not at all lost its actuality (see link to video below).
Pillar 3: Foster continuous improvement
Very often not only one but various potential solutions emerge within a creative process. At this point, good leadership will enable the team to identify the best solution for the current situation: this can be done via gaining insights through stringent experimentation. In good days for example that can mean to measure customer acceptance for different innovative product variants. After a sequence of experiments, the team can choose the best product variant based on profound market data. Here, no manager is required to take a crystal ball gazing. In tough times, processes or procedures within the company can be modified. After observing the modifications for a while, all involved parties can decide together, whether the measure has led to an improvement or not. In case the expected improvement has not materialized, the measure is simply withdrawn. If this approach is applied in peaceful times, the organization is aiming for continuous improvement. Following the same approach in tough times, measures might be picked, which a crucial for the organization to survive the crisis. Another company, which has not practiced the experimental approach in quiet times, does potentially not find a survival strategy in times of a crisis.
A leader, who establishes the preconditions to foster a regular experimental approach, enables the team and the organization to continuously build up knowledge. True to the advice of British philosopher Francis Bacon: “If a man starts with certainties, he will end up in doubt; but if he is content to start with doubts, he will end up in certainties."
Pillar 4: Enable teams and endow trust
In case the leader follows the experimental approach as described above, he or she is already delegating responsibility concerning decisions to its employees. After generating insights for the organization through various experiments, employees enabled themselves to make their own decisions based on their collected data. The new split of responsibilities between employees and leader requires a lot of trust between these two parties. This can only be achieved via transparent behavior and appreciative cooperation.
Pillar 5: Provide direction
At this point you could ask: “Which skills and talents will still be required from a crisis-proof manager? What will be left, if we do not expect her or him to have immediate answers to all problems and additionally recommend that she or he delegates as many decisions to the team respectively employees as possible? It remains the important task of determining the direction for the organization. Here, I would like to tie in with my last newsletter: this direction may also be geared to a higher sense, which keeps its significance also in times of crisis.
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here