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COVID-19: What makes a good leader during a crisis

The true test of a leader isn’t how they perform in good times — it’s how they handle a crisis

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” It’s easy to do the right thing and say the right words when times are good; it’s a lot harder when you are navigating an unprecedented crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

But as participants of June’s virtual UN Global Compact Leaders Summit pointed out, it’s in these moments that we see some of the most inspiring leaders emerge. So, what does it take to be a good leader during a crisis? 

Bring everyone to the table

In difficult times, it can be tempting to move fast and make decisions without seeking input from others. Fluid situations mean things change from one minute to the next, which can make consensus-building hard. 

But as Philip Jennings, former General Secretary of UNI Global Union, noted, the best leaders bring everyone to the table. “Those who have come through this crisis best have listened to their workers, have had dialogues with their labour movements and civil society, respected them and relied on them for advice,” he said.

Put the collective good ahead of business or political goals

A great leader never has tunnel vision. Whatever field or industry they operate in, they understand that they can’t make decisions in a vacuum. But this type of approach is even more important in a crisis, as many leaders have shown since the start of the pandemic. “I admire the way the business sector has come together,” said Karmany Reddy, Digital Innovation Manager of Distell. “They’ve put aside differences, competition and profit and loss statements to actually find their place to survive this pandemic that we’re facing, and it’s redesigning of business models, mobilizing groups within businesses to actually focus on crisis management.”

Think on your feet

In a crisis, new information is being learned all the time. Great leaders understand that while they might have a plan, they will also need to adapt it to these new realities — sometimes even tearing the plan up and starting from scratch.

“We can learn from this. We know we can become an agile society — COVID-19 has proven that to us,” stressed Karmany Reddy. “I think more importantly, it has proven to Governments and businesses the importance of having that agile, adaptive mindset when faced with a crisis.”

Never lose sight of the bigger picture

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it is all too easy to move into survival mode. Working through the latest issue comes at the expense of longer-term problems, which can wait until tomorrow. But the best leaders understand that this is short-sighted.

“COVID will one day go away. We will find a way to manage it, but the bigger picture is that there are many other things that are impacting the world economy, such as climate change, inequality [and] unemployment — we can’t lose sight of these issues,” remarked Suphachai Chearavanont, Chief Executive Officer of Charoen Pokphand Group Co., Ltd. In fact, rather than putting off these bigger challenges, great leaders seize the opportunity that a crisis offers to rethink how things have always been done — ensuring that the post-crisis world is better than the one that came before it. As Chearavanont put it, “a crisis always comes with great opportunity.”

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