For many executives, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis unlike any other in recent times. Five leadership practices can help you respond effectively.
The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders in business and beyond. The humanitarian toll taken by COVID-19 creates fear among employees and other stakeholders. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for executives to respond. Indeed, the outbreak has the hallmarks of a “landscape scale” crisis: an unexpected event or sequence of events of enormous scale and overwhelming speed, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance.1https://view.ceros.com/mckinsey/coronavirus-promo
Recognizing that a company faces a crisis is the first thing leaders must do. It is a difficult step, especially during the onset of crises that do not arrive suddenly but grow out of familiar circumstances that mask their nature.2 Examples of such crises include the SARS outbreak of 2002–03 and now the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing a slow-developing crisis for what it might become requires leaders to overcome the normalcy bias, which can cause them to underestimate both the possibility of a crisis and the impact that it could have.3
Once leaders recognize a crisis as such, they can begin to mount a response. But they cannot respond as they would in a routine emergency, by following plans that had been drawn up in advance. During a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are largely improvised.4 They might span a wide range of actions: not just temporary moves (for example, instituting work-from-home policies) but also adjustments to ongoing business practices (such as the adoption of new tools to aid collaboration), which can be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis has passed.
What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. In this article, we explore five such behaviors and accompanying mindsets that can help leaders navigate the coronavirus pandemic and future crises.
Organizing to respond to crises: The network of teams
During a crisis, leaders must relinquish the belief that a top-down response will engender stability. In routine emergencies, the typical company can rely on its command-and-control structure to manage operations well by carrying out a scripted response. But in crises characterized by uncertainty, leaders face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood. A small group of executives at an organization’s highest level cannot collect information or make decisions quickly enough to respond effectively. Leaders can better mobilize their organizations by setting clear priorities for the response and empowering others to discover and implement solutions that serve those priorities.
To promote rapid problem solving and execution under high-stress, chaotic conditions, leaders can organize a network of teams. Although the network of teams is a widely known construct, it is worth highlighting because relatively few companies have experience in implementing one. A network of teams consists of a highly adaptable assembly of groups, which are united by a common purpose and work together in much the same way that the individuals on a single team collaborate (exhibit).5