When Leadership and Innovation Emerge from Crisis

At the top of COVID-19, global public relations firm Edelman conducted a survey of over 12,000 consumers to better understand brand trust in a pandemic environment. Across 12 countries, respondents concluded that qualities such as empathy, transparency, connectivity and innovation were most important to them. That brands acting in the interest of their employees and society at large were most valuable. The report concluded that companies willing to step forward to help the world and guide us through these challenges would ultimately strengthen the relationships they have with the market.

Many of the world’s leading corporations and their top executives met this challenge head on. Names like Jack Ma, Yvon Chouinard, Arne Sorenson and Jack Dorsey were some of the first to step forward and set precedent for no layoffs, major gift campaigns and investment into technologies and manufacturing that would help entire populations.

In many ways COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for these executives to harness reputational benefits. For the many examples where corporations have made decisions on the basis of effective altruism, others have followed simply to avoid public scrutiny.

I’m most interested in the leaders that made immense sacrifice in this time of crisis. That put their best foot forward in the face of uncertainty to serve public good while maintaining their growth.

I believe there is a great deal we can learn from their actions. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from COVID-19 crisis leaders.

They lead with humanity. Crisis leaders not only value the welfare of their team but they lead in service to those individuals. There is a sense of self-sacrificial behaviour at play whether through major donation, forfeit of personal salary or commitment to maintaining jobs. Their behaviour reflects their priorities of human welfare over profit.

They lead with transparency. When Jack Dorsey gave $1 Billion dollars away to fund COVID-19 relief he not only announced the major gift to the world but made a spreadsheet of every transaction publicly available. According to a survey conducted by O.C. Tanner (Reference 4) of nearly 13,000 respondents, lack of transparency also causes employees to be 102% more likely to think their organization was unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis, and 25% more likely to worry about losing their jobs. Transparent leadership gives people confidence. It is an opportunity to display altruistic behaviour and set an example for others to follow.

Crisis leaders reevaluate their framework for decision making. Chaos often rejects the status quo and upends our familiar systems and processes. When their environment becomes highly unpredictable and volatile, crisis leaders have the ability to be flexible and embrace new information. The most effective leadership models that I have witnessed have been built on actionable intelligence garnered from an active awareness of the changing landscape. In a recent publication by Deloitte on effective crisis leadership, the report found that information management and crisis communication were paramount to decisive leadership.

Crisis leadership is characterized by rapid response. To meet rapid changes in consumer behaviour, rapid changes in environmental conditions and the shifting dynamic of public need. It requires innovation and experimentation. It involves informed risk and at times adapting the core of corporate operations to meet need.

I believe that those that have displayed these qualities are poised to gain long-term advantages in the post-pandemic market. According to McKinseyorganizations that maintained their innovation focus through the 2009 financial crisis, for example, emerged stronger, outperforming the market average by more than 30 percent and continuing to deliver accelerated growth over the subsequent three to five years. That is because competitive advantage shifts when leaders act promptly and adapt their business models to new market realities.

Those that break new ground will gain unparalleled momentum in a number of ways:

1. At the doorstep of major Disruption, new dynamic operational models are a necessity for future achievement.

2. Businesses that have persevered and adapted in crisis will be more fortified, defensible and scalable

3. Their people become mobilized. Trust is developed through care, honesty and humanity

4. They have actionable and informed insights. Those that prioritize information management will prevail

5. They accept the abstraction of innovation led growth. Those that have experimented and yielded results will have been forced to shed cautious governance models and processes. The potential for future innovation is greater than ever.

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