As the spectre of COVID-19 continues to loom over us, the need for strong leadership has perhaps never been clearer. The recent bouts of panic buying and the rife spread of misinformation online, for one, point to the fact that most people are understandably much more anxious than usual. Indeed, “Coronavirus anxiety”, as it is now being called, is becoming a serious concern.
Paradoxically, in times of crisis like this, when rationality, decisiveness, mutual helping and co-operation are most needed, they are often abandoned in favour of brash self-preservation. Leaders play an indispensable role in taking charge of the situation and employing good communication and people skills in order to set the tone for an appropriate response at both the organisational and individual levels.
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With lockdowns fast becoming the new global norm and recent forecasts of recession, anxieties about the infectiousness of the coronavirus are also likely to be amplified by worries about the economic and financial impact that the virus will have.
In such highly sensitive times, emotions are likely to run high. The rigidity of new workplace health and wellness measures that, while certainly necessary during a pandemic, may add even more stress and tension to an already anxious workplace atmosphere.
Virtual team leaders need to lead with empathy and understanding. Letting people know that they are being well taken care of, not just as employees but as people going through the same crisis as everyone else, is of paramount importance. A leader who is not himself or herself emotionally stable and level-headed in times of crisis will hardly be able to engender confidence and trust in their people.
Much has been said about the comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2003 SARS outbreak. One of the most important distinctions, though, is the difference in the speed and reach with which misinformation spreads today compared to 2003.
In a post-truth age of alternative facts and fake news, the need for transparent communication has never been more dire. At the political and societal level alone, so much of the failure to contain the spread of the coronavirus all over the world can be attributed to the deliberate mishandling and misinformation communicated by leaders in powerful and influential positions.
As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson writes in a recent Harvard Business Review op-ed, “transparency is “job one” for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing to manage it.”
No systematic, cohesive, organisation-wide approach to tackling the coronavirus crisis can be achieved if leaders cannot be truthful and honest to their people about what challenges they’re facing, their outlook going forward, and exactly how dire the situation may be.