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Leading in a time of crisis

KIZITO OKECHUKWU | MAY 18, 2020

Picture: thesouthafrican.com . President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize

The roles and responsibilities of business, political, medical and religious leaders, as well as civil society, parents and family members have changed drastically over the past few months.

Many business leaders are now forced to make crucial decisions on the go regarding operations, innovation, sustaining market share and laying off staff, to name a few. Political leaders however, have to make decisions that will create a lasting legacy for themselves (be it good or bad), as they try to navigate their respective countries through the devastating Covid-19 quagmire of chaos and confusion, with little certainty and proven procedural information to rely upon.

President Kennedy once told the American nation six days into the Cuban missile crisis that, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which both our patience and our will, will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers”.

To grasp the depth of snap-decisions that leaders have to make during a crisis, I go back to the unfortunate incident that happened on January 8th 2020 where, according to the New York Times, Iran admitted to downing a Ukrainian passenger plane, amidst heightened tensions between Iran and the United States that included tit-for-tat military strikes, such as the killing of the top Iranian security commander, Maj. General Qassim Suleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. Reports indicate that the Iranian government thought it was a hostile inbound missile and a leader made a split-second decision to shoot it down. Many lost their loved ones instantly.

Leadership in a time of crisis is always difficult and is a severely testing time for those having to make the “hard calls” – especially those that could ultimately save or cost lives, such as deciding to stay locked down or unlock the populace, which is our global conundrum right now. Being a prominent member of any pandemic team (be it political, medical or otherwise) at the moment must be the most unenviable position to have. In this gloomy light, I would like to list four key behaviours from The Harvard Business Review that leaders should adopt during this period.

Behaviour 1: Decide with speed over precision: During a crisis like this, cognitive overload looms and there are various interests and priorities that will clash. Some information might be incomplete, but leaders are bound to process the information they have quickly and make decisions with conviction.

Behaviour 2: Adapt boldly: Leaders seek input and information from diverse sources. They admit what they do not know and are keen to get insights even from external sources. I believe that, given the many structures set up since the onset of the virus, our political leaders have collaborated successfully with trustworthy sources.

Behaviour 3: Deliver reliably: Leaders take ownership in a crisis, even though some challenges and factors lie outside of their control. They align team focus, establish

metrics to monitor performance and create a culture of accountability. Our leaders have openly admitted to mistakes that were made during this period and has invited all to join the discussions and work together through social contract to ensure buy-in and survival.

Behaviour 4: Engage for impact: In times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your team. Find ways to motivate and engage, clearly and thoroughly communicating new goals and information. The President must continue to motivate us as his team and engage regularly to determine what our concerns are and work towards addressing these.

As a leader, you are navigating new and ever-changing territory with limited time to react in a crisis that constantly brings new priorities. Now, the most important thing is to deal successfully with the crisis. Solidarity still remains the most powerful tool during any crisis, so all stakeholders should continue rallying behind their leaders during this time. However, we must not shy away from calling them out if mistakes are made.

As Winston Churchill once remarked, “the future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope – the hope that human ingenuity, reason and character can combine to save us from the abyss and keep us on a path”.

Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa; 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

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