COVID-19: Organizations' Responsibility To Ensure Employee Wellbeing Leaders today face innumerable 'leadership dilemmas' and conflicting demands, and most of these do not have a simple binary answer

By Mohinish Sinha & Garima Garg

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The rapid and unprecedented spread of COVID-19 has quickly eclipsed other epidemics, both in size and scope. What we are seeing now is the truest manifestation of the phrase volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). The current situation poses an enormous challenge for leaders across the world. The uncertainty embedded in this situation makes the "leadership challenge' even more complex.

Today, leaders face innumerable "leadership dilemmas' and conflicting demands, and most of these do not have a simple binary answer. Considering opposing perspectives is vital, especially in a situation where both the perspectives seem logical, it almost is like a game that cannot be won. In short, leadership demands are of an unprecedented nature.

The world of COVID-19 is like a microcosm within the larger ecosystem, which has allowed us to observe presence of leadership with sharp clarity. We attempt to distil leadership lessons from our observations. When juxtaposed with years of Deloitte research on leadership, we find that these lessons further reaffirm the leadership model.

Based on the evidence so far, we have seen five fundamental themes of resilient leadership during the COVID-19 crisis that constitute successful leadership behaviors.

Design from the heart and head

One of the most fundamental asks from leaders has been to act from "their heart'. As the pandemic started to make its presence felt, we saw overwhelming evidence of leaders recognizing and empathizing with the human side of the upheaval. They put messages across the organization on prioritizing personal wellbeing and many pushed to provide support through counselling, etc. It was evident that great leaders prioritized people over business.

Resilient leaders often applied these same principles to better serve their customers, especially during a crisis. They tried using their understanding of dramatically changed customer's perceptions and needs to design for the customer's heart. As organizations begin the recovery process, leaders will need to stay committed to the principles of empathy and wellbeing of the employees.

Put the mission first

Amid the entire crisis, a resilient leader's focus on his or her organization's purpose remains steadfast: it is never negotiable. Making decisions that tie back to the organization's purpose is particularly important, when companies are under increased pressure and stakeholders are paying close attention to every move. It is equally important for leaders to define their priorities and mission at a time when organizations face a flurry of urgent issues across innumerable fronts. Resilient leaders zero in on the most pressing of these issues, establishing priority areas that can quickly be cascaded. They can plan and navigate from the initial days of the crisis to the next phase to lead their organizations through the crisis.

Aim for speed over elegance

Perfect is the enemy of good, especially during a crisis when prompt action is needed. There will be many unknowns' in the days and weeks ahead. Leaders need to accept that the information available will be imperfect as accurate real-time data collection is a challenge. Leaders need to focus on quick solutions that help combat the situation to the extent possible and keep detailed analysis and review for post-crisis.

Also, as leaders confront unanticipated situations, this is the time to encourage more initiative and decision-making across levels in the organization. Trusting teams and individuals, who are deeply embedded in a specific context, can end up being the best position to come up with creative approaches to address unanticipated needs.

Own the narrative

It is critical for leaders to own the narrative by explicitly sharing their perspective on the situation, what it means for the organization, and also clarifying what they expect from their teams. Leaders may not have the complete information and it is all right to communicate this transparently. In these times, authenticity in communication, and being equally open about what is clear and what is not clear is critical to establish trust and keep employees engaged. Communication is vital to engage and keep the teams energized. Sharing messages such as organization's mission, success stories with more frequent personal connects reinforces relationships and creates a safe space.

Embrace the long view

We believe that a typical crisis plays out over three time frames: respond, recover and thrive, where the company prepares for and shapes the "next normal'. While most leaders were busy attending to the basics in the respond phase, the view changed gradually as we progressed into recover phase and gradually into the "thrive phase'. Each industry is likely to have its unique challenges and industry leaders need to recognize and plan for these changes. Leaders who step up their game are expected to be better off and far more ready to confront the challenges—and opportunities—of the next normal than those who do not.

In such times, leadership matters the most. Organizations that respond, recover, and thrive through crises such as these are going to be generally those that are led by leaders having these fundamental characteristics.

* Mohinish Sinha, Partner, Deloitte India; Garima Garg, Director, Deloitte India

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