Leadership resilience during Covid-19

Jane Newell Brown

The current pandemic has tested and is testing, all leader’s capacity to adapt and change. There’s no rule book, but a key indicator to how both you, as a leader, and your wider team come out of this successfully, is resilience. How resilient are you?

As we emerge from the Easter weekend there is both good news and bad; Boris Johnson is out of hospital and recuperating, Spain and Italy can see light at the end of the tunnel and are starting to ease lock-down laws, Wuhan and other parts of China are moving in a positive direction, and we have enjoyed a much needed break over the long weekend. Nevertheless, the end to global lock-down still feels a long way off. Leadership resilience is a key coping skill that will get us through all this and the good news is it can be learned and applied to yourself, your businesses and your families.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, and it is a crucial characteristic of high-performing leaders. Resilient leaders have the ability to cope with disruption, changes in direction and adversity, without engaging in dysfunctional behaviour. They have the ability to adapt under immense pressure, all whilst maintaining their high energy, and continuing to instill confidence in their employees and customers.

It is often forgotten that one must turn inwards and lead oneself before standing up to lead others.

Building resilience: Self-leading

Resilience is something that many organisations will have focussed on as part of disaster planning but the focus of this article is on the psychology behind leadership resilience, both for the individual and the team. The Resilience Prescription, adapted from Hesketh and Cooper (Wellbeing at Work, Kogan Page, 2019) provides five actions that can be kept in mind and used on a daily basis throughout this present time.

Physical wellbeing

When things get really difficult it can somehow be easier to just stay “in” work and think that it will all come good if I just keep working – but this is counterproductive. The single most important thing to do at the moment is to keep well, keep fit and stay healthy. So make sure you are getting some exercise and fresh air, a decent night’s sleep and eating a good diet. If you become unwell you can’t do your job and then problems will multiply. Maybe today this sounds obvious but as time goes on through this crisis it may well be that your physical wellbeing deteriorates. Don’t let this happen.

Supportive networks

Make sure you are not alone. However difficult having contact with others is, do not isolate from your networks. For those at the top of a business pyramid it can be trickier to find someone to talk things over with, team members are there to be listened to and not to off-load onto. Look outside the company to a mentor, old colleague, friends and family or use other leaders or HR. In a way, having just an ear of someone who cares about you is far more important than having someone who may have the technical knowledge to seem to be able to offer help.

Coping skills

A personal coping strategy is a real positive in maintaining resilience. Make a plan for one. What works for you? Take some time to design one and make it a habit regardless if ‘you feel like it’. You may well not feel like it some days but have it be, ‘just what you do’ in the same way as ‘you just brush your teeth every day’ to take you through the times when it all feels pointless. For some people a daily structure can be very important, putting on work clothes before sitting at the kitchen table will work for some but could seem trivial and a bit daft to another. You may get a pointer or two to help develop this by thinking back to another time of stress and difficulty, how did you cope, what did you do, when working through challenges in earlier years? When and how have you been successful in a recession or time of stress in the past? And if that all revolved around being in an office, how can you replicate that?

Flexibility of thought

Who do you turn to for a route map for dealing with a global pandemic? No one I’ve read about has any answers, just guesswork mainly. But the odds on guessing better can be increased by being flexible of thought. Don’t get fixed or stuck in any one position. What made real sense last week could well be totally wrong next week. Cognitive flexibility is far more likely to lead to positive outcomes at the moment than some dogmatic position holding.

Positive attitude

This isn’t holding to a “we’ll be all right” position against any evidence. That would be counterproductive. But a ‘what can we do’ attitude will really help. Noticing what is good, counting blessings, finding silver linings (however trite) is proven to make a psychological difference to our capacity to cope. Ask yourself what were the three good things that happened today at the end of each evening. And get some sleep on the back of that.

Building resilience: Leading your team

In many, if not most businesses, the first challenge that leaders have had to face in relation to their teams, is remote working, which has become the new normal. If this had come in as a new business strategy there would have been weeks of preparation, trial periods, systems to set up and check, and training for staff on how to adjust to the new working practices. This didn’t happen, and many people found themselves waking up one morning to receive an email saying “office closed”.

So as a business leader looking after a remote team, firstly, your role is to help everyone come out of the end of this with the best chance of having a happy and motivated team ready to face those new challenges that appear.

It’s easy when you’re focussing on planning and crisis management to spend the whole day deep in spreadsheets or listening to webinars hoping for ‘the answer’. But if you run a people business what are you doing to ensure your people are seeing and hearing you? What are you putting in place to help them feel supported and part of something important; business survival and potential to thrive?

Here are six key actions you can implement with your teams to help them remain resilient:

Have an informal check-in daily. Notice when someone is missing. Notice when someone isn’t their usual self. Use video as much as possible to pick up signals better.

Communicate and then communicate some more. Plans, bad news, good news, it doesn’t matter. A major problem with withholding information is that the gossip mongers can take over. There is an old saying that a lie can travel around the world before the truth has got its boots on – remember this and don’t let gossip run riot around your organisation.

Set up the equivalent to the kitchen chat with a place to share. Make sure no one is left out. Share the good news. Spread the word around when good things happen.

Keep feedback lines open. Top to bottom, bottom to top and side to side. Encourage sharing of what’s working and what isn’t and be open to suggestions to make things work better from all people. Contact individuals, all of your teams, with a personalised message not just an “all company” email.

Not everyone is the same. Be aware of specific challenges faced by all. Some people will be alone in a bedsit away from family and friends and others in a house full of others, maybe inter-generational or two working parents with small children. Each of these can present difficulties.

Be patient. New working practices, ad hoc systems, problems with kit, no one on hand to ask a simple “where do I find?” or “how do I?”. So be aware that for some the change will not be seamless

Finally, stay balanced and trust yourself. You are leading this business for a reason. You’ve definitely got what it takes to lead it through this and out the other side.

Remember, times are stressful and there is nothing wrong with talking to the fridge as you choose what to have for lunch, letting the flowers in the vase know how lovely they smell and chiding the cooker for the time it is taking to boil that egg.

This is normal behaviour and you are not mad.

But if they talk back to you; better let a Doctor know.

This is one article in a series that has been prepared to assist you to navigate the current Covid-19 environment. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll share our thoughts on the progress of key sectors, what a successful fund raise looks like in these circumstances, the changing M&A landscape and more. Read the first in the series by our Managing Partner, Keith Hunt where he shares his perspectives on resilience – read it here.