02 Apr 2020 20:30 IST

Inspiring trust and confidence in a time of crisis

Leaders use bad times to stress-test the ship. They coach, mentor, spot those who lift the extra load

One of the things that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into focus is how politicians, businesspeople, community leaders and ordinary people are displaying leadership in a crisis. Crisis has a way of sifting the wheat from the chaff. On the world stage we’ve seen leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro bluster their way through, leaders like Scott Morrison prefer to be confused rather than wrong and leaders like our own Prime Minister Modi, who have taken decisive action. We’ve seen business leaders who circle like hyenas, ready to scavenge for extraordinary profits from the panic and some who have chosen to be truly selfless and generous. A crisis tests leadership like few other things can. And the leader has to deal with the dilemmas it presents.

Problem or opportunity

In a 2012 article for HR Matters I’d reflected on the first dilemma that a leader faces in a crisis — whether to succumb to it, as a problem and play victim, or to harness the opportunities that it presents. A few points from that article are worth reflecting on here. You can read the whole article here.

It is a time for assessing real strengths. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’, but a crisis shows an organisation’s and a person’s real strengths, like no ‘good times’ ever could do. When the economy is sailing smoothly, when Government incentives are in our favour, when tax benefits make the books look better, we can have, as drama critic Walter F. Kerr would put it, ‘delusions of adequacy’. This rarely causes a problem during the ‘good times’, but it can be fatal in bad times. A star performer who coasted on the good work of teammates is suddenly exposed as mediocre. A business division that led the pack because of a habit of ‘buying business’ is suddenly felled by the stark reality of a crisis.

Leaders use a crisis to stress-test the ship. They figure out which parts of their ship are creaking during the storm — processes, people, technology, customer relationships, compliance. They also look for the people who volunteer to lift the extra load, who step forward when others just lurk in the shadows. They coach, they mentor, they spot the next generation of leaders. No diagnostic or HR questionnaire will ever give you the insights from a crisis.

Conviction or Convenience

A crisis also tests what we really believe in. Mission statements are thrown into the furnace of the crisis and all those fancy sounding values are really subjected to the heat. It is up to the leader to stand by those convictions. “People are our biggest asset.” That’s the claim, but when a crisis comes, are salary cuts and lay-offs the immediate announcements? Choosing what to give up in a crisis often reflects the true character of the organisation and its leader, and the strength of its belief in its convictions and values. Are they real convictions or just statements of convenience? Is people welfare cut deeply? Is customer support compromised? People remember. The loyalty of our convictions will be rewarded many times over when good times return. A crisis presents an opportunity for the leader to raise the banner anew on the values the team stands for. It is a time when the team sees such banners with a clarity that good times often conceal.

India’s approach to the corona crisis has shown up a fascination with ‘optics initiatives’ that look great on TV but expose poor values. They end up being like the old Zimbabwean billionaires. At the height of the Zimbabwean financial crisis, a billion Zimbabwean dollars was worth about US$4! Cool to claim you’re a billionaire, but difficult to buy a loaf of bread! The clanging of pots and pans turned out to be an exercise in optics that did not address real issues.

Truth or Lies

One of the biggest casualties in a crisis is the truth. Whether it is a Government or a business, the first instinct is to deny. Once denial is impossible, concealment and obfuscation follow, as does creating a palatable version of the truth.

Lockdown time has seen recommendations pour in, on movies and TV shows to catch up on. Here’s my recommendation — an outstanding mini-series — Chernobyl. It tells the story of the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in then Soviet Russia. It is a fascinating watch, especially in the context of the corona virus sweeping the world. Right after the explosion, the leader onsite — plant scientist Anatoly Dyatlov — repeatedly refuses to accept that the core has exploded. His colleagues who have seen the burning evidence, confront him but he says that it is impossible for the core to explode. Leaders in several failed businesses exhibited the same symptoms. When colleagues show them the signs of impending disaster, they scream, they blame, they behead messengers. They do anything except face reality.

While we have to laud our own Government’s decisive move on the lockdown, there is a constant uneasiness on whether we have seen the real size of the problem. The US is close to 200,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths. Italy and Spain are over 100,000 cases and around 10,000 deaths. China, where estimates are always prefixed with the caveat ‘official’, saw over 80,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths. India’s numbers beggar belief — 1,600 cases and 45 deaths. Unlike China, there may be no deliberate attempt to fudge the numbers, but there appears to be a troubling reluctance to actually dig out the actual numbers and acknowledge their scale, through large scale testing.

In an earlier article, I’d quoted Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy’s definition of execution as ‘a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it’. Jesus said the same thing in the power packed declaration ‘The truth shall set you free’. But in a crisis, leaders seem to embrace lies. The rest of the Chernobyl mini-series shows that. We see the struggles of lead scientist Valery Legasov, played brilliantly by Jared Harris, and the party man from Headquarters, Boris Scherbina — a towering performance from Stellan Skarsgard. They fight twin battles — deal with the radiation and find the truth.

When Legasov testifies before the Government Commission, he pulls no punches. “When the truth offends, we lie and lie, until we can no longer remember it is ever there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid”. He says at the end, “Where once I would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”

The series closes with a stark reminder — death estimates ranged widely from 4,000 to 93,000 but the official number that has remained unchanged since 1987 is 31!!

Ultimately to handle these dilemmas, the leader needs those qualities that are hard to define but easy to see — integrity and courage.