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navigate through a crisis

Leadership

How to navigate through a crisis

Published 2 July 2021 in Leadership • 9 min read

Leaders of theaters, galleries and museums have faced unprecedented challenges in the past year. Michael Day asked them what qualities they needed to help them through. 

Leaders of cultural organizations have faced extraordinary difficulties in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as an existential threat, they have had to contend with re-framing strategy, managing personal insecurities and trying to communicate effectively without always knowing the answers. In a series of interviews, I asked them what were the most important qualities needed to enable organizational survival. To ensure confidentiality, all the quotes are anonymized.  

Leaders make choices continuously (although by no means always self-consciously) about what they do every day and how they do it. The sum of these usually small choices creates an impression for their people of the kind of leader they are, and in turn determines whether or not they will be respected and followed. The pandemic brought an abnormal and acute set of pressures; in response, leaders have found certain behaviors or traits to be of greater importance in maintaining effectiveness. What are they? Six common and to some extent interlinked themes emerge.  

Resilience with stamina and courage are mentioned by more than a third of all respondents. Resilience is a key leadership trait, especially in times of crisis, and has been defined thus by experts George Kohlrieser and Anouk Lavoie Orlick: 

“Resilient leaders have the ability to sustain their energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behavior or harming others.” (Resilient leadership: navigating the pressures of modern working life) 

My respondents talked about both being resilient and demonstrating it. One theater director said: “Resilience … no question. We’re on version eight of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, version seven of our 2021-22 schedule, version 10 of our annual budget. Just leaning into the mental energy required to move alongside the changing pandemic landscape and try and get ahead of it requires bottomless resilience.” 

This crisis has exacted a personal toll on leaders. One said: “It has taken, and still does take, a huge amount of stamina to keep going when you are without the usual rewards of sharing your work with audiences”, while another observed: “There is a Groundhog Day element to this and to pull yourself out of bed, make sense of what has happened and to lead the response with calm assurance day after day involves stamina.” 

A third spoke of “resilience, as in being able to adapt and respond to an uncertain, ever-changing context while maintaining clarity of direction and values. Bending, not breaking”. Resilience also proved to be an attribute admired in others. Speaking of his CEO, one senior director said he had “hugely admired both her kindness and utter steely determination to more than just endure this – she has played a constantly attacking game, even when this is exhausting.” 

Decisiveness with focus and speed are discussed by several respondents, all observing that across a choice of styles, the threats of the situation seemed to require this. One heritage leader noted that in normal times, he preferred to lead as much as possible through consensus and collaboration. “But, to be honest, this was not going well. Early in the crisis, I signalled that I would consciously be shifting to a more directive style and that I expected a far greater degree of compliance. This came from my reflection that a) in a crisis the decisive leader naturally emerges in any case (focused, assertive, analytical, problem solver), and b) at the same time people are willing to surrender some of their agency in favor of speed and clear direction.” 

A museum director drew on a cinematic metaphor to describe the state of her organization, talking about: “Learning how to cut through the noise – there’s a go, go, go” [US Marine film voice] mood to this last year which is often not real. So I’ve worked on putting focused effort on the most important things, blocking out the rest (despite all the anxiety and clamoring around me) and having the confidence to know when to make a decision: quickly and decisively, or until the last possible moment available, or even not at all. I honestly think I learnt these skills as a child, playing hundreds of hours of board games with my siblings.” 

A third simply said: “Strip out all the unnecessary stuff, create a rigid boundary and make clear decisions: Is it safe? Can we afford it? This will not be forever.” 

Integrity, clarity, transparency, honesty come together as a third set of traits, important in leadership at any time but especially now. One respondent said: “For me, integrity – using a personal compass to guide decisions large and small as well as to frame my behaviors. I can look myself in the mirror despite the mistakes I made, and that matters enormously.” 

These qualities were mentioned especially when people spoke of observed examples being set by others: “I admire those who have walked the walk – directors who came back on site when we first reopened to role-model even though they could work from home; those who ensured staff had time off as promised and were clear about the boundaries of decisions which were consulted on, so I really knew what options there were and what options were absolute non-starters.” Another said: ‘I most admire those who have been honest and explained that they’ve had to make a fast decision and their time was too limited to consult.” 

The show must go on, whether playing to packed houses at La Fenice Opera House...

 

Knowing when and how to say the things that matter, however difficult, has been especially vital in inspiring respect. As one director said about his CEO: “I’ve particularly admired her courage and integrity – she has the broadest shoulders I’ve ever known in a leader and never shirks a responsibility or avoids a difficult conversation.” 

Others spoke of “being a tireless listener and clear communicator”, “humility” and “acknowledging how much learning is to be done”, while perhaps paradoxically, respect has grown for leaders “who have shown vulnerability, admitted weakness and embraced the awfulness of all this”. 

Flexibility and agility while staying true to core purpose and values have been critical to navigating the unpredictable and fast-changing context that the pandemic caused over the last year: “We’ve needed to be quick-thinking and adaptable . . . public health guidance was always changing and we needed to respond sometimes by flexing up as restrictions were lifted or flexing down as restrictions tightened. We also had to up-end long-established practices about how we worked.” 

There is a potential contradiction here between two typically important leadership dimensions – on the one hand, conviction and determination to hold course and be true to purpose and strategy while on the other, recognizing that leadership must work contextually and organizations must flex and adapt as the challenges change. “What I’ve admired in others is adaptability to the suspension of the usual rules and willingness to live with the uncertainties while still being able to make commitments where possible rather than just saying ‘we just don’t know yet’ to absolutely everything. It’s been important to emphasize what solid ground there is, which in reality is quite a lot, rather than focus on the obvious uncertainties.” 

Throughout these responses is the idea of being comfortable with ambiguity. As human beings, we tend to favor certainty and therefore expect our leaders to create it for us, yet the utter confusion caused by the pandemic has tended to leave questions mostly unresolved. So leaders and their organizations have needed to be constantly adaptable and to be as at ease as possible with unplanned rapid change. 

Collaboration and networking – just as we have seen wider society at its best when people have reached beyond their normal boundaries in the pandemic to offer support and forge new connections, so these actions have been noted in some leaders. They have been able to turn their minds outwards and make the most of “working collaboratively, with urgency” – while at the same time acting generously to other organizations and the whole cultural sector: “I have admired the capacity of others to continue to network widely and generously, which turned out to be important in offering mutual support between CEOs. Everyone’s experiences are broadly similar, it seems.”  

...or when Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings have enforced temporary closure

 

One CEO is commended for showing “real leadership through his personal conviction about our sector – through lobbying, bringing organizations together and information sharing”, while another “offered practical ideas and got people together with unerring but realistic levels of positivity”. 

For many cultural organizations, working collaboratively with their communities is at the heart of their purpose and they have found real opportunities, in the difficulties endured by local people, to act it out: “I have aimed to give clarity that working to our strengths and values (positivity, social activism and creative risk-taking) for our community is more important than ever in a crisis, i.e., not being paralyzed by the size of the challenges or being overly cautious in response.” 

Compassion and empathy are highlighted repeatedly, through this time when real suffering has been close to everyone’s experience. These are not qualities that can be feigned – they must spring naturally from a genuinely-held care for each staff member and a desire to put this at the forefront of mutual survival. As one CEO told me: “You can’t say to your team ‘we’re all in the same boat’, because we’re not. We’re all in different boats – some are in good fettle while others are very leaky; some are working stupidly hard from home while others are on furlough; some have comfortable surroundings, others are home schooling, some don’t get on with their partners and so on. We’re all trying to navigate the same storm but in different boats. Therefore maximum empathy is needed and you must show it.” 

Others talked about “care – when decisions are made that affect people, they should be able to trust that their interests have been taken into account” and “compassion – has been absolutely vital in the incredible pressures that our staff have been under. They have required much more personal attention and reassurance that would ordinarily be necessary”. 

Finally, one director powerfully described it simply as being human. “I’m not sure this is a new thing but it reaffirms for me it’s the right thing. Accepting my dog thinks he is part of our finance committee, sharing struggles with the maths curriculum, setting poem challenges for the team, and joining cheese and wine zooms when I wanted a break from the laptop but the team wanted to see me. These have all made the difference. Everyone is having a tough time, some far worse than others. They’re all missing contact. The most important thing is doing the small stuff (posting a card, sending flowers following a loss); with the huge things happening in the world and to my organization at the moment, these are things that can feel like fluff or a pain. They’re not though, they’re the glue holding the remote team together. When we have redundancies and restructures to manage, if we do the small acts properly, people are more willing to believe we take care of the big stuff too.” 

As I reflect on these testimonies, three things strike me. Firstly, the most effective leaders have been self-aware and thoughtful about the type of leadership their organizations have needed through the last year and have been constantly able to learn, adapt and choose the best response to each new challenge. Secondly, it has not been enough to think inwardly about the appropriate leadership response; for it to work, it has to be visible – your people must see you being resilient, acting decisively and with integrity, showing flexibility, collaborating and demonstrating compassion. And finally, while these experiences all come from one unprecedented year, it has been like an enormous universal laboratory for stress-testing organizations and helping their people to learn about prolonged crisis leadership. These are lessons that will be valuable long into whatever the future brings. 

 

Authors

Michael Day

CEO of the United Kingdom’s Historic Royal Palaces from 2003 to 2017

Michael was CEO of the United Kingdom’s Historic Royal Palaces from 2003 to 2017, where he led a programme of organizational transformation, including major projects at the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace. A trustee of the National Trust and chair of The Royal Tennis Court, he was formerly chair of Battersea Arts Centre and board member of the UK’s Cultural Leadership Programme. Michael has taught cultural leadership, governance and historic site interpretation around the world and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Kingston University in 2010 for his work in the heritage and museums sector. He was appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by The Queen  in 2015. 

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