Ethical leadership through crisis and coming out of the pandemic

Leaders, believe it or not, you don’t know everything. And not only is that OK, but your employees already know it—so one of the most important things you can do is acknowledge it. So says Vanessa Pigrum, CEO of Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership at Monash University. She spoke with VENTURE about leading during a crisis, what COVID-19 has taught us about leadership, and what leaders need to do as we emerge into a changed world. Spoiler alert: People don’t like it when leaders lie to them.

‘You’re not superhuman’

Very few people alive have seen a pandemic of this scale, and no one alive had any position of leadership the last time. So, it’s not as if anyone is expecting leaders to make the correct decision at every turn. It’s an unprecedented combination of both health and economic crises. No single person could be expected to fix it alone, neither in government nor in business.

“One of the most important sets of messages is that you don’t have all the answers, you’re not superhuman, that you acknowledge, genuinely, the concerns and the questions that are coming from your team and your community as real and relevant, and that there’s a plan to work through them,” Pigrum said.

Pretending you do have all the answers or denying that there is a problem will erode trust—in addition to being a poor strategy for navigating through a crisis. The realisation that a crisis will not be over quickly and will have far-reaching consequences can be a painful one to come to, but it will better inform your plan.

Acting with a short-term view, leaders might make hasty unilateral decisions. They might justify unethical actions by thinking, “This just needs to be fixed right now, and there are limited choices in front of me. I’ll deal with the damage to relationships, policies, and equity when it’s all over, and everyone will understand that I had to make these difficult decisions,” Pigrum said.

Such a short-sighted approach risks throwing away years spent building up trust and loyalty. A much better strategy is to announce what the problem is, what your strategy is for working through, who you’re going to rely on for advice and information, and a timeline within which you envision having some answers.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis

With that transparency of process laid out, leaders then have the incentive to meet deadlines and make decisions. A lot of information comes flying in fast and everyone has an opinion, meaning at a certain point analysis paralysis can set in. Leaders must make decisions and go with them. A key turning point is, “When do I confirm and announce a decision that cannot be reversed?” Pigrum said. This must be done before further delays create new problems, and in the absence of leadership, other people or circumstances might also create new problems to solve.

The decision should be informed by consultation with trusted aides who present diversity of views and expertise that will challenge the leader and avoid groupthink. Ultimately, the leader needs to combine that advice with the accumulated personal experience that has carried him or her this far.

“People get into leadership positions because they have had to make these judgements over and over and over again,” she said.

You’re the leader for a reason. In the end, the weight of the decision is on your shoulders. The COVID-19 pandemic has featured countless examples of fantastic leadership and atrocious leadership. The good leadership has exhibited a common trait.

“As a society, we respond best to leaders who genuinely display their humanity,” Pigrum said, “who are not afraid to apologise, to admit they’ve made a mistake and to give us a sense of a pathway forward. I’m hoping that COVID-19 has finally put to rest the notion that leadership has to pretend to be infallible. I probably won’t be proven right on that, but I think it has shone a very bright spotlight on leaders who are genuine, authentic, who take us with them and create a sense of community. I think that’s what we are all hungry for. We want more of that.”

How to Go Forward

OK, so you’ve steered your organisation through the worst of the crisis. You’ve made more good decisions than bad, and you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. What’s next? First, you need to take care of yourself.

“Right now, we all need a rest. We’re all a bit tired but there are two very important months of 2020 to go,” Pigrum said. “As leaders we need to dig deep and focus on the future. For individual leaders, I would say self-care, mini breaks, taking care of your own reserves is very important because you can’t lead others with clarity and optimism if your own reserves are too low.”

With no set end date to the crisis, leaders need to view 2021 and 2022 with as much flexibility as possible. Scenario planning such as, “What if we have to work online only for another year?” is crucial. Figuring out a hybrid work system and how to make adaptability a central tenet of your organisation will make the uncertainty of the middle term much easier to plan around. Depending on how volatile your industry is, the timeframe you can plan for likely doesn’t extend past the next two years. You can set concrete milestones to be accomplished by Christmas in the short term and have an idea of what you’ll do in 2021-22. Beyond that, leaders will have to use their imaginations.

“This is where having a creative mindset comes to the fore,” Pigrum says. “Imagining an alternative future, not a fanciful one, but imagining other options and other ways of doing things, put you in a much better position to take your team, your organisation, your community into a more robust future. Then what you also need to do is put yourself in the shoes of every stakeholder group that will be affected by that preferred future and examine what the ethical implications are on each of those groups, or the ethical impact that your leadership is creating.”

The world that emerges from the pandemic will be very different from the one that entered it, and it’s up to leaders to pave the way.