The pandemic has dramatically impacted countries, organisations and communities across the world. As a result, leadership has been stress-tested like almost nothing else in living memory.
What’s heartening is that we’ve seen a variety of leaders—from prime ministers to primary students—respond in inspiring ways. On the latest episode of People People. Unfiltered, I was lucky to speak with Korn Ferry’s Eugene Chang, who knows a thing or two about this sort of leadership.
A partner in the firm’s Strategy and Organisation function and an executive coach with over two decades of experience, Eugene had a lot of insights into what makes a great leader—and what organisations must do, systematically and structurally, to cultivate them.
“Crises expose the characteristics of a great leader,” Eugene explained during our conversation. “They may not have foreseen the crisis per se but had already invested in their capabilities, their culture and their people long before the crisis– and continue to do so even through the crisis.”
Throughout our conversation, it started to become clear that great leaders exhibit three major characteristics to lead their people through turmoil: empathy, decisiveness and flexibility.
1. EMPATHY AND HUMAN WARMTH
There’s no question that organisations will need a disciplined focus on viability and financial health (a company can only benefit others if it still exists). But, as Eugene noted, many executive leaders have been taught to focus a little too much on the financial angle.
Crisis demands something more human. This might mean leaders speaking openly about their vulnerability or inner conflict. Eugene brought up specific examples of CEOs who had to deliver heartbreaking news about redundancies but did so with far more familial compassion and openness than you’d have seen from the median corporate environment 10 years ago. Other organisations have created support programs for retrenched employees or reassured those employees that they’ll enjoy rehiring priority once the business is in a place to rebuild.
“A crisis demands something more human. This might mean leaders speaking openly about their vulnerability or inner conflict.”
“The only way forward is through your people,” Eugene said. Leaders will need to invest accordingly, even—perhaps especially—when managing relationships with employees they must let go.
That investment extends to the communities in which businesses operate. Leaders who aren’t actively searching for ways to support their communities risk eroding their brand reputation as well as a crucial part of their employee value proposition. This is doubly true during a challenge of this scale and gravity.
2. DECISIVENESS AND CONFIDENCE IN YOUR TEAM
Eugene pointed out that leaders must layer empathy with confidence and decisiveness, noting that leaders who wait for definitive amounts of data may be “paralysed.” A novel coronavirus has provided harrowing proof—after all, if leaders had waited for comprehensive data to respond to a still-unfolding crisis, they’d likely be waiting right now and potentially putting employees and customers in danger.
As a character from the series ‘Call the Midwife’ put it, “Failure isn’t fatal, but hesitation can be.” (If you’re looking for a glimpse into my binge-watching under lockdown, there you go!)
This sort of leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Eugene explained two organisational requirements: 1) the willingness to make mistakes and pivot quickly, and 2) confidence in the teams you’ve built.
“Your job is not to know all the answers but to know possible scenarios, to empower your teams and to ask the right questions.”
3. RESILIENCE AND FLEXIBILITY
Eugene spoke to me about the importance of confidence and resilience but stressed that we need to properly define “resilience” first.
“I used to think it meant never giving up,” he said. “But that might just be stubbornness.”
Instead, Eugene explained resilience through a metaphor that I’ll be employing regularly from now on: “Strength and resilience means not being rigid like the oak tree but more like bamboo flexing in the wind.”
“Strength and resilience means not being rigid like the oak tree but more like bamboo flexing in the wind.”
This approach demands a cultural and organisational focus on learning agility, a concept that comes up often in Korn Ferry’s work. Great leaders are looking to super-charge any efforts they’ve already undertaken in order to build agility in action as well as thought, and must ensure they’re focusing on managing objectives rather than tasks to allow for flexibility in approach.
Organisations can build this sort of resilience by investing in people and capabilities, but great leaders are also rethinking entire business models for short-term survival. We’ve seen flexibility and agility in businesses where retail staff and cabbies are now pivoting to food delivery roles and other alternatives that find new uses for core strengths and skills.
Eugene pointed out a fantastic example in Singapore Airlines, who have creatively redeployed 300 cabin crew to provide non-clinical assistance in hospitals as “care ambassadors” in their pivot to keep talent meaningfully engaged and on the payroll.
Through a blend of resilience, decisiveness and empathy, great leaders are navigating a gamut of challenges that are still taking shape. And, though this leadership is crucial for immediate survival, it will also make teams and organisations stronger in the long run.
Eugene mentioned one client story that stuck with me: a year and a half ago, a smaller company’s GM had seven team members (including herself) on maternity level all at once. In response, they automated some of their processes and beefed up remote capabilities. Then, COVID-19 hit—but they were ready. It’s proof that responding to adversity now can pay dividends down the road.
For more in-depth discussion and examples, tune in to our full conversation on People People. Unfiltered.