26 Jul 2018 19:38 IST

Why KK Shailaja is a role model for leaders

The Kerala Health Minister was calm in the face of the Nipah virus and handled it with great maturity

At our company TalentEase, for the past year, we’ve been planning to welcome batches of students from the UK and Singapore as part of our Light Lives projects. They come over to work with children at low-income schools and orphanages whom we partner with. May 2018 saw a hint of panic, as parents overseas learnt of the Nipah virus outbreak and wondered whether it was safe for their children to travel. That the students are now safely in India and fully engaged in their projects is testimony to an unlikely hero — Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja and her team. The virus eventually claimed 16 lives, but that it did not turn into an outbreak which could have killed many more showcases the robust and rigorous leadership that the Health Minister and her team of health professionals displayed. Let’s look at what we can learn from their leadership skills in a crisis.

Openness and transparency

In a crisis, one tendency many leaders may have is to go into stealth mode. Leaders feel that a crisis must be contained and so they choose to contain information, distort facts and mislead those who depend on them. Corporates do this all the time, but all organisations and all leaders are susceptible to this weakness. The Catholic church demonstrated this flaw in the way it handled the sex abuse crisis. What these leaders fail to realise is that people hate a vacuum. When there is no information, they will create Donald Trump’s favourite ‘fake news’, and that results in the exact opposite of what the leaders wanted — panic and disarray.

A bias for or against transparency springs also from priorities. Priorities will dictate whether information is shared or stowed behind euphemisms. You will remember the scene from the movie Jaws where Mayor Vaughn holds business considerations above safety. He tells the Police Chief, “Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands, on the Fourth of July.” A warning about a shark in the water would have scared tourists away and caused several small businesses in the town to lose the biggest business day of their year. Such flawed priority resulted in delayed warnings and lost lives.

The Kerala Government showed no hesitation in this regard. They knew business would be hit, especially with tourism being one of their biggest revenue generators. Yet they chose to be transparent and take the hit. They issued travel warnings well in advance, were rigorous in implementing them, and shared constant updates with the public. Instead of hiding information, they reached out to other health organisations, nationally and internationally, asked for help, and took it when it was offered.

One of the biggest testimonies to their success in this regard was the absence of panic. Sure, everybody was worried and anxious, but to a large extent, the public dealt with the crisis stoically and completely supported the Government’s efforts. Health Minister Shailaja led the way by being visible and vocal — calming nerves, highlighting risks and the mitigating actions that were necessary.

Willingness to get your hands dirty

The leader cannot afford to be a ‘helicopter leader’, giving advice or directions from afar. This is no time for remote-control leadership. This is a time for the leader to get in the trenches and get her hands dirty.

Sometimes, in a crisis, leaders display the commitment of a kamikaze pilot on his 30th mission. It is tentative, hesitant, and therefore weak and ineffectual.

Minister Shailaja chose to get in there with the team, even handling calls herself on the toll-free numbers set up to report cases. She and her team worked around the clock, not just planning for the actions that needed to be taken, but more importantly acting on those plans.

While the Kerala Government reached out for help, they got cracking without waiting for others to solve the problem. This is an important part of leading in a crisis — ownership. If we don’t feel like we own the problem, then it is difficult to get our hands dirty. When leaders hesitate to dive in, it is because at some level they have not taken responsibility for the problem.

In a crisis, courage is called for; the courage to lead from the front. That courage creates the commitment that makes superhuman efforts possible. The highest example of this was Nurse Lini. A tweet from Dr. Deepu Sebin, extolled her sacrifice. “Nurse Lini died in our battle against the Nipah virus. She died trying to save patients infected by it. She was just 31 and was a mother of two little kids. If she is not a martyr, I don’t know who is.”

Make tough calls early

Many leaders often know what needs to be done, but they baulk at doing it because it can be unpleasant, have both personal and organisational consequences, and can make the leader quite unpopular.

Another reason leaders hesitate to take tough action is the illusion that things are not as bad as they seem, or worse, that things will get better on their own. Both are fatal flaws. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy exquisitely define execution as “…a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.”. Chief Brody’s assertion again in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a classic exposing of reality and the trigger for the tough calls that followed.

The enemy of action is cogitation

While planning and preparation are called for, too much of them in a crisis is like trying to sip water through a straw when a fire hydrant has burst. It does not work. It becomes an excuse to delay action and the tough decisions that go with it. As I often tell my teams: “If you push away a crisis when it’s a kitten, when you look at it again, it will have become a tiger.” So, speed is critical in a crisis. Leaders must display the self-security, the self-confidence and high conviction that allows for speed.

Another important factor to ensure speed is trust. If leaders have not made a habit of building high performance teams, then in a crisis, they are filled with fears and doubts about the ability of the team to execute. This slows everything down to a crawl. This is not the team’s fault, it is the leader’s.

The Kerala Health Department took the tough call to home-quarantine about 2000 people to ensure that the risk of the virus spreading was minimised. It issued the travel advisories early enough and banned public gatherings. I experienced this first hand, when a leadership workshop that I was to run in Calicut (Kozhikode) was cancelled because the Collector gave clear instructions against public gatherings.

The team looks to the leader in a crisis and as Charan and Bossidy highlight again: “there’s a big difference between leading an organisation and presiding over it.” A crisis is when the leader can demonstrate that difference best.

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