Apr 01 2020| Leadership | crisis

Crisis: The True Test of Leadership

Insights from our Leaders Nexus in Guernsey

by Phil Eyre Founder

As part of our mission to promote excellence in leadership, we host leadership breakfasts throughout the year. This month, we ran a digital breakfast, and having set the subject several weeks ago, little did we realise how much the world would change in such a short time.


We have summarised the main insights on leading in a crisis, which fall under four headings and include some helpful points and tips.  For me this is all about integrity, which is built on trust.


  • When a building has structural integrity, we trust it to stand.
  • When a business has integrity, it’s people, customers and suppliers can rely on it.
  • When a leader has integrity, everyone can trust them to do the right thing.


The purpose of leadership in a time of crisis is to ‘en-courage’. When Major General Patrick Marriott visited Guernsey recently, he insightfully told us that “fear is contagious, but so is courage”. Leaders that are high in integrity will build courage. 


What does integrity look like in practice in a time of crisis?


1) Preparation

Leaders that build integrity into their organisations prepare and practice, attempting to get ‘ahead of the curve’, leading their organisations rather than just reacting to the latest information.


Business continuity planning will have helped some businesses to prepare well for working from home, even if the full extent of the current Covid-19 lock-down conditions were not anticipated.  Interestingly, in Guernsey, the civil contingency group ‘practiced’ in November for a pandemic situation, this will have helped the island to stay one step ahead.


Some businesses with a global reach learnt from their colleagues in Asia and took pre-emptive action in the event that the UK and Channel Islands would experience similar problems, as has now become the case.


Being alert and attuned to the bigger picture, beyond immediate demands, is a critical leadership skill. In our work, this is one of the factors that we measure via psychometrics and we have noticed a steady decline in this skill-area. Anecdotally, our hypothesis is that too many leaders are relying too heavily on their solving skills rather than developing their awareness and avoidance capabilities.


Lesson: It’s crucial to step back, ask questions beyond the immediate, seek new and diverse perspectives rather than dive-in manager-style to solve the immediate issue.


Leaders need to continually prepare for the next thing. In the current fast-changing environment there will be more problems to come, further issues to deal with. For example, some leaders in our conversation had planned well practically but had underestimated the emotional response in their people. We are now preparing for a period of pastoral leadership (more to follow from me on that this week); supporting team members if (and likely when) illness or tragedy escalate.

Challenge: This is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief; what do you need to prepare for next?


2)  People

Putting people at the centre of crisis-strategy is an important part of building high-integrity teams. This relies on trust, which essentially springs from relational, human factors. Think of someone that you trust and what they’ve done to earn that trust; it’s unlikely to be because of a policy or procedure.   


Investing in building trust is always important and sets up an organisation to get through a crisis, even if ii doesn’t seem efficient to do so at the time. Crises are, by nature, non-efficient. Now is the time to draw on relational strengths in your teams, put trust into practice and intentionally build up the human factors.


Ideas include:

  • Making every effort to connect with people, especially now that teams are working remotely. This is more than setting tasks and making sure that business is happening. It’s asking how people are, being supportive and acknowledging emotions. Being and showing empathy is crucial in a crisis; it was good to hear some leaders recognising that, for some of their people, home is not an easy or comfortable place to be. Read more on this in our Cascade Kindness article.


  • One business has changed it’s Sports & Social to “Support & Social”, another is arranging team drinks virtually on a Friday afternoon.


  • Assuring people of support, whilst communicating transparently. Leaders that are able are keeping their people on payroll, even if there are no immediate tasks for them to perform. For example, front-of-house people can’t do much work from home, however they remain highly valuable to the long-term success of the organisation. Ensuring that these people and others know that they are well supported helps to spread courage.


  • Injecting some fun; one CEO is writing a weekly light-hearted blog, another has set up “watercooler chats” digitally, others are using WhatsApp groups quite creatively.


  • Thinking about other people outside of the organisation that are connected to it. For example, one business has decided to pay small business suppliers even sooner, ensuring that bills that are posted are quickly collected and attended to.


  • Clear and transparent communication is essential. One CEO said that “we can’t communicate enough - we’re deliberately over communicating”.


In a crisis, people pull together; one leader noted a huge increase in engagement in the business, another highlighted community interdependencies and how our own organisations depend on others to succeed.


Lesson: Leaders should not assume that everyone knows what they’re thinking, expecting and what’s new, nor that the message has been received as intended. Consistent, clear, transparent and calm communication is vital. This builds trust.

Challenge: What can you do to build trust within your team, especially if you’re working remotely?


3) Purpose 

We strongly believe that the purpose of what you do as leaders is always important. Never more so in a crisis. This is the time to apply the effort that you have put into understanding your purpose, mission and values; take the words off the walls and live them.


Ensuring that the purpose, the “why?” of what you do is front and centre will help to:

  • Focus on the future of the business beyond the immediate demands. This will inform decisions and enable you to bring stability and direction. Think of your successor, the next CEO, what will you be passing on to them?


  • Purpose can be located in many different places. Essential organisations - healthcare, electricity, post and more - are serving the island brilliantly, with purpose front-and-centre. Other businesses can (and must) be led with purpose, too. For example, Artex, an insurance company, was born out of a catastrophic fire in Chicago that killed over 100 children and nuns. The passion to serve people in the community remains a strong motivator and is galvanising employees to action. The work is not “just finance”; there’s a keen sense of purpose.


  • Purpose-driven leaders will always step up in a crisis; they hold their beliefs with passion, putting in the blood, sweat and tears to see their mission and purpose achieved. Fair-weather leaders need to step up or step aside and pass the reins to someone with more passion. This is not the time for mediocrity, nor relying on a fair-wind.


Lesson: If your people are not clear on your business purpose, they will flounder in a crisis. Leaders need to ensure that the whole organisation remains focussed on how the business improves other people’s lives and makes a difference, especially in a crisis. The immediate tasks and disruption, whilst demanding, serve a greater purpose.

Challenge: Is the purpose of what you do clear, front and centre? How would I know, what would I see?


4) Principles

There’s a lot that we might not take with us through this crisis. Products and services might not be launched, share price targets might not be met, retirement plans might change, career aspirations might not be achieved. But what we can take with us - and must take with us - are our principles (see Hold On to the Right Things).


Now is the time to live our values everyday. Understanding what truly matters to us and choosing to not cross those red lines, even if it’s “just this once”. As fear rises, it becomes easier to excuse behaviour and attitude that are anti-values, but this undermines trust in an instant, let alone results in regrettable decisions.


  • Working from home tests integrity; if I believe that kindness is a virtue, am I kind to the people at home?


  • Financial crisis tests integrity; will I reduce headcount to meet (cheat?) government “small business” criteria and quality for a grant?


  • Rapid change tests integrity; I say I am agile, but am I obsessed with what other people are doing before I make a decision? Agile leaders know what to do for their own organisation, regardless of what others choose to do.


  • Uncertainty tests integrity: Am I waiting for the perfect decision or willing to make a well-informed quick decision that might need refining or changing later? Courageous leaders will always make the decision and not let fear of criticism create inertia. 


Lesson: In a crisis, losses are inevitable, some far more meaningful than others. Holding to our principles is essential to get through with integrity intact, enabling the business to take new opportunities quickly.

Challenge: What difficult choices are you facing today? How will your principles guide your decision?


We are grateful for the strength of leadership in our island and here to help. Our offer of support and challenge in a crisis may be if interest, click here for the details.


About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the Institute of Directors.

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