What makes a leader great during a crisis?

What makes a leader great during a crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted everyday life on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed in decades. Nearly every industry and field has been impacted by the pandemic, resulting in layoffs, production slowdowns and, for a large swath of businesses, complete cessations of operations. Some companies have been able to remain in business while protecting their employees by shifting to remote-work arrangements, supporting employees who continue their day-to-day work while sheltering in place. Other businesses require their employees to continue in-office work, adding additional pressure and concerns for safety to the work day.

These trying times require an enhanced approach to employee management and organizational leadership. Stanford professors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao recently conducted a webinar to discuss the key principles that separate good bosses from ineffective—and sometimes even downright awful—managers.

With employee stress at an all-time high and growing uncertainty about the future of many organizations, strong, compassionate leadership is needed to navigate these times.

Let compassion guide your decisions

Leaders are facing very difficult decisions as they respond the challenges of operating during a pandemic. Many business leaders have been forced to lay off or furlough workers in response to COVID-19-related disruptions, re-evaluate and/or create entirely new budget projections.

Professors Sutton and Rao stressed the importance of handling difficult decisions with compassion and empathy, making every effort to cushion transitions for both departing employees and those who continue on without their fellow co-workers.

Predictability is key to getting through such tumultuous times. Good managers put themselves in their employees’ shoes and consider how rampant speculation and uncertainty can impact employees’ day-to-day mindset. Managers need to seek ways to assuage staff fears and address concerns often and continuously.

Even if leaders have no plans to reduce employee count, it’s important that they routinely reassure employees that their jobs are safe. Simply promising that no staff changes will be made for the next month can drastically reduce stress for employees who might otherwise wake up every day wondering if they still have a job.

Don’t be afraid of the ugly truth

Bad news has been rampant for many businesses, and it’s tempting for managers to try to downplay the ramifications of new developments or even ignore them entirely. But Sutton and Rao argue that facing ugly truths head on benefits organizations. The more insight you have into current conditions and developments, the better equipped you will be to respond to them.

Business leaders also need to work to cultivate a culture in which employees feel comfortable bringing bad news to their supervisors. That’s often not the case, unfortunately. As the pair noted, if you’re not hearing or delivering bad news on a regular basis during a crisis as serious as the one going on right now, that’s a surefire sign that your organization is in denial.

Continue pushing innovation

That being said, it’s also important to encourage staff to continue to think positively and seek out opportunities for growth and improvements. Challenging times shouldn’t mean a moratorium on experimenting with new business practices and management approaches. Give your employees the safety to explore opportunities for innovation even during stressful times.

The rapid pivot toward remote-work strategies is an example of innovation driven by necessity. Many organizations that previously held off on supporting telecommuting on a large scale have suddenly found themselves forced to embrace remote workforces and create models that fit their specific requirements.

Sutton and Rao explain that the urgency experienced during a crisis often gives stakeholders the go-ahead to enact change faster than ever before. There can be a silver lining in difficult times.

Great leadership will always be in demand, whether companies are in a state of crisis or business is booming. Watch the full webinar to learn more about what makes an effective leader, and if you’re ready to hone your skills, consider enrolling in Stanford’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate program. Every course is taught by Stanford instructors and industry experts, using real-world examples that apply directly to the most pressing issues facing entrepreneurs and business leaders today. Become the leader you’ve always wanted to be.