During a recent conversation with a client, one leader reflected it’s as if their whole career has been in preparation for this moment. This, coming from someone who led teams through the London bombings, the GFC and 9/11, helps to capture the scale of the challenge currently faced by leaders.

No leader has ever been called on to lead through conditions like those created by this COVID-19 pandemic. Nor will they likely ever have to do so again – the next crisis will no doubt take a different form. Leaders who can use this disruptive period as a time for self reflection and an opportunity to re-frame their mindset are likely to be better prepared not only to lead their people through the recovery in this crisis but to step up again when the next crisis comes along.

So how can leaders be at their best now and set themselves up for the future? We see leaders using previous experience to successfully guide their actions today, but we also see opportunities for emerging leaders to build their personal banks of experience for the future. And as important leading others is, leadership of self is equally important.

The COVID-19 leadership challenge isn’t new

During a recent webinar, Korn Ferry senior client partner Anita Wingrove recalled her work with a CFO at an American airline. The CFO had been in his new role for just two days when 9/11 happened. Together with the airline’s CEO, it was his job to try and save the organisation. The CFO was able to inspire others, not just to stay the course, but to achieve stretch goals. He brought opposing groups together, listened carefully and then deployed those insights to make effective decisions. In so doing, he led the organisation to implement breakthrough solutions to unprecedented problems, saving the company and the 12,000 jobs of those who worked there.

Which is to say, what we’re facing today isn’t new, it’s just different. This challenge can be met, as others before it have been. While completely different to a terror attack, this pandemic has created comparable levels of uncertainty and fear in the market and in individuals. For organisations, the pressure to make the right decisions is intense. Leaders are grappling with taking expeditious action while giving due consideration to what are often big decisions. It’s a balance between acting and reflecting.

 The value of experience

Like the CFO, the leaders who are effectively juggling acting and reflecting in today’s conditions are those who have done the work before the crisis. They’re drawing on previous experience, while deploying their agility to adapt that experience to new challenges. And it’s not just their own experience they’re leveraging, but the experience of others.

This doesn’t mean leaders who haven’t faced crisis conditions before are doomed to fail. While self-awareness is critical for all leaders, for newer leaders it’s especially important if they are to grow through the pandemic. It’s also a time when emerging leaders can be given new scope to develop. Creating new opportunities, like a chief customer care officer role can provide a high potential emerging leader with a clear remit and mission that’s engaging for them personally while offering a chance to grow in a new space.

Nurturing self and nurturing others

There’s a lot going on and the weight is heavy, but leaders still need to look after themselves first. This means taking the time to sleep, exercise, spend time with family – whatever fills their cup. Only then can they be available for their teams – because working intensely under pressure for months on end is not sustainable.

By nurturing the self, leaders can then look to authentically nurture others. This hasn’t typically been a word we’ve used to describe leadership styles in the past, but these aren’t ordinary times. Leaders need to connect with their people – not only through formal channels, but through informal channels as well, whether it’s through chat apps or even fitness or wellbeing apps. It’s not about checking up on people, but checking in on them and offering support to the whole person.

To learn more about what leaders can do to lead through high uncertainty, read Korn Ferry’s COVID-19 Leadership Guide.

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