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Leadership

Toolkit for strategic leading through a crisis 

Published 4 April 2022 in Leadership • 5 min read

Turbulent times have changed the rules for what it means to be a good leader. Based on extensive research and interviews with senior executives, our specialists suggest the five essential skills needed.

 

It’s time to tear up the textbook on what it means to be a strategic leader. Times of prolonged uncertainty are testing executives in new ways; this is particularly the case for the COVID-19 pandemic that has radically changed not only the competitive landscape, but also how teams work together and what will be expected from leaders to succeed post-pandemic. Remote working means many managers are no longer able to gauge the mood of their teams. Being stuck in crisis-fighting mode makes it harder to give the right amount of attention to long-term strategy.  

Have the unique features of the COVID-19 crisis really changed what it means to be a strategic leader? Based on our latest research, we believe the answer is yes. Through a survey with over 100 senior executives, we have identified the five skills that strategic leaders will need to master as we emerge from the pandemic. 

Here we present five skills that, when applied all at once, can enable leaders to succeed in the aftermath of the pandemic. Executives will have to be more ambidextrous and agile; they need to learn to juggle short-term needs with long-term success. Crucially, they need to understand when employees, customers and stakeholders need support.  

 

The five skills are: 

  1. Align and engage
  2. Communicate and keep focus
  3. Play offense and defense (long-term versus short-term)
  4. Manage yourself and your family
  5. Show empathy and compassion

 

We think of these five skills as a multi-tool  approach to ambidextrous leadership. This allows you to leverage your agility and modulate between the short-term immediate need (playing defense for survival) and a longer-term success (playing offense for prosperity).   

This ambidextrous approach includes being true to your values compass of integrity, accountability, fairness, and empathy while focusing on your GPS – strategic vision and execution, communications (frequent and transparent), and continuing to develop your expertise. 

Especially in times of crisis, “Swiss knives” are great people who can support others, who have a wide stretch zone. They are able to understand when employees, customers and other stakeholders need support and how to give direction and facilitate resources. They are agile and ambidextrous and know when to switch to achieve maximum impact. They also have a longer-term view which is critical to managing the post-crisis crisis. For example, when considering financial resilience, should we spend everything and invest heavily today or keep some reserves in case things get worse tomorrow? When no end is in sight you need the skills and capabilities to balance the short versus longer-term view. 

Being a strategic leader in the aftermath of COVID-19 will entail a continuous focus on these five skills, embracing change and continuing to develop one’s expertise to master these five skills simultaneously. 

Swiss Knife test
We developed a test to help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and enhance your portfolio of strategic leadership skills. If you score 4 or 5, then, congratulations, you are a multi-tool leader. 

 

 

Here are the responses and reflections we gathered from the over 100 executives who participated in the study: 

How often do you manage yourself and your family? 

Personal management will continue to be key as leaders adapt. Survey respondents showed a similar standing in relation to the need of (a) managing their mental and physical health and (b) ensuring they have sufficient time and energy for their families (average response: 3.22 versus 3.13). What was striking in the results we obtained is that roughly 30% of participants answered either “rarely” or “irregularly” to both statements. This reflects the challenges leaders face in today’s turbulent times to manage their health and dedicate sufficient time to their families.  

How often do you show empathy and compassion? 

When it comes to showing empathy and compassion, the executives surveyed reported a comparable inclination to show empathy for those that are suffering the most, and to take actions to show their accountability (average response: 3.66 versus 3.59). Around 40% of executives surveyed confirmed that they frequently showed empathy and compassion, although the results confirmed some variability, with only around 10% doing that irregularly. Being compassionate is a crucial trait of leadership, especially in times of crisis. Asking regularly what one can do for others is a critical trait of leadership, especially in the face of changing conditions. 

One transport executive noted that they would “find new ways for a more effective dialogue/communication with the team and customers while smart working is increasingly adopted”.  Another executive, who works in health services, predicted that “being a strategic leader post-COVID-19 will mean preventing, detecting, and taking care of the delayed psychological consequences of the collective and individual trauma of the pandemic, identifying the most fragile team members who don’t express their distress, and cultivating collective memory of what happened, what we did right and wrong, not in a ‘painful’ way, but to use it to better react next time.”  

6 hidden traps in times of crisis 

Building on academic literature on the topic, as well as our extensive research and interviews, we identified six hidden traps that unprepared leaders can fall into, especially in times of crisis. 

1 Entrenchment syndrome: soldiers in the trenches losing their will or ability to fight. 

2 Evaporating ethics: in the struggle to survive either redundancy or the collapse of business, what actions might desperate leaders resort to as base survival instincts kick in to save themselves and their businesses? 

3 Our dominant characteristic prevails: how can we avoid either being too caring or too daring but modulate through agility? 

4 The weakest could pay a heavy price: how as leaders can we bring people with us rather than throwing them to the wolves, particularly the most vulnerable? 

5 Danger of toxic leaders: the type of leaders we need in a crisis are those who have high trust, even if they might not be the stars of high-performance delivery. 

6 Loss of informal relationship building: how can we avoid or minimize the lack of informal human contact? 

 

 

Authors

Sameh Abadir

Professor of Leadership and Negotiation at IMD

Sameh Abadir is a Professor of Leadership and Negotiation at IMD. He is the co-director of IMD’s Negotiating for Value Creation program (NVC) and is co-director of IMD’s signature program Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP).

Niccolo Pisani - IMD Professor

Niccolò Pisani

IMD Professor of Strategy and International Business

Niccolò Pisani’s areas of expertise are strategic management and international business, with emphasis on globalization, sustainability, and digitization. One of Niccolò’s key areas of interest is corporate social responsibility – his research in this stream has recently focused on inequality and sustainable cities. He directs IMD’s International Growth Strategies program.

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