Those of us who give any level of leadership for organizations are facing a remarkable set of circumstances – asking what it means to be an effective organization in the midst of a pandemic. 2020 will for a generation be remembered as the year of Covid-19 – the year that upset all strategic plans, all the rhythms and routines of our organizations. We need to both learn in the midst of this situation but also learn from it and ask: what does it mean to give leadership in such a time as this – in this time and in this place?
We are all learning; and our learning is an iterative process. But at the least we are learning the following:
First, crisis management is about getting as much information as possible in hand – accurate and up-to-date. We do not need wishful thinking or naïve optimism; we need facts and we need them fast: whether it is a major pandemic that affects the entire city in which we live and work or whether it is a bomb scare within our own facility – that is, a crisis that is particular to our own organization. Either way the principle remains: get as much information as possible as quickly as possible.
Second, err on the side of caution. One will likely be accused of fear mongering or of getting caught up in hysteria. My last point below will be about how we lead without panic, without hysteria, but the point here is that we will err on the side of caution and likely get criticized for this. If in the end the threat was not a big deal, there will for sure be those who insist that we over-reacted. But wise leadership is marked by this particular proclivity: we err on the side of caution. This I not an overreaction; it is merely until we know more, we assume the worst. We are hyper vigilant.
Third, we find a way to communicate – by asking: who needs to know what? And, what information needs to be disseminated as quickly and efficiently as possible? Communication needs to be clear and concise: no melodrama; no commentary beyond what we know, no pseudo spirituality. Further, good communication brings us together rather than polarizes; we learn that “we are in this together” and those who are responsible for the communication know how to use variations of “our shared values and commitments.”
Fourth, debrief. If the crisis is a single event, then have a debrief where you ask: What did we do well? What could we do better? And what can others learn from our experience? A peer university in our city, Calgary, had a single event crisis where there was an intruder and we have so appreciated how they have made their learning from that experience available to us should we ever be in a similar situation or face a crisis of that sort. If the crisis is more long term – such as a pandemic where things are shut down and on-going – then have some variation of an emergency crisis response team that is monitoring and learning from and adjusting the response of the organization to any new realities or developments.
And finally, know the difference between panic and a healthy fear or caution. Effective leaders do not panic; they are not governed by hysteria; they keep their fear and anxiety in check and as such are a means of lowing the anxiety that all of might naturally fear in a time of threat or crisis. We make decisions and act out of caution but not out of panic.
I would value any response or comments from one and all – what you are learning from your own experience of tending to the challenges of institutional leadership during a time of crisis.