What is the Best Leadership Approach During a Crisis?

What an impact an inspirational leader can make! Is it surprising that for years so many have sought to understand the magic of leadership? Many conflicting philosophies, styles, behaviours. Is it an art or a science? Nature or nurture? Somehow a leader instils a sense of trust!

Even now …

The decision to ‘lock down’ is transforming our society. We are told that we are being led by the ‘science’. But there is so much we do not know. Social media and broadcasting stimulate a huge diversity of views and doubt and uncertainty. How do we trust what we hear? When the UK leader was in hospital, questions were asked about who is now in charge? What should remain confidential? Can authority and accountability be delegated? Powerful questions for any contemporary leader!

Making the right decisions

According to Peter Drucker, ‘effectiveness’ – often described as doing the right thing – is a key leadership trait. But who judges what is right? We live in a stakeholder society in which everyone now has immediate access to information and expects to influence decisions – whether through voting in an election or on Big Brother.

The increasing importance of participative decision making

In a workshop I facilitated in the USA the week before lockdown (with senior leaders in African public services) one scenario was ‘What is the leadership style expected of a director recruited by the WHO to tackle the coronavirus?’ They recommended the participative style rather than more directive styles. Perhaps not the choice you would expect? However, it is supported by Vroom and Yetton who concerned themselves not only with the quality of the decision but also its level of acceptance. For them there are various factors that lead to a choice of decision-making styles such as autocratic, consultative or by consensus. Interestingly, when the problem is unstructured and the leader lacks information/skill to make the decision alone, they propose the consensus style.

Perhaps these days there are more ‘unstructured problems’.

Cultural differences affect our leadership style

However, we are seeing how different nations are responding to the coronavirus – China, South Korea, Italy, France, UK, USA, etc. Some more stringent, some more lax. ‘The way we do things around here’ will always have an impact – and, as Drucker points out, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The pressure on leaders to behave in ways expected of them is huge! Hofstede shows how national cultures are different.  Perhaps it is not surprising why Sweden and China have differed in their response.

We do know that the truly great inspirational leaders recognise this and somehow bring about changes that inevitably shape or at least become embedded in the culture.

Know thy leadership style

In such a complex world, we have to understand our own response to it. Plato’s message ‘Know thyself’ still holds true.

Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Y  shows how leaders’ beliefs about people affect their behaviour. Do we understand our motives? Do we seek to control people or trust them?  John Adair’s ‘Action Centred Leadership’ asks us to consider our preferences for control of the task, meeting the needs of the team, and meeting the needs of individuals. To be a successful team leader we have to balance these needs.

Situational Leadership has also remained popular over the decades. It is a way of understanding how we choose one of four different leadership behaviours. We vary the levels of direction and support we give depending on the task and the individual’s level of ability and motivation.

We all have preferences in leadership style. Emotional intelligence is at the root of this and is about our self-awareness, empathy for others and therefore about making a deliberate choice in how we behave with others.

Being true to ourselves

How can people trust us as leaders if we are not true to ourselves?

We go back to Aristotle and the ancient Greek philosophers in the search for authentic leadership – dealing with people in a straightforward and honest way. Sometimes the wisdom of millennia is worth as much as the science of today.

We all have a blend of values that makes us who we are – and thank goodness we are different! The Strength Deployment Inventory helps us understand our motivational value system (MVS) and its implications for our relationships with others.

Let’s be confident in who we are yet humble in understanding where we need to change. In these times of doubt and uncertainty, surely this is wise!

The CIPD Learning and Development Level 5 qualification is a great way to examine our role as a leader in learning and development:

  • Using the CIPD’s My CPD map and The Learning and Performance Institute’s Capability Map. We reflect on our personal strengths and how we can adapt.
  • As consultants, recognising the power of process, client relationships, stakeholder engagement, and the embedding of change. As leaders in L&D, we have to build consensus and ‘buy in’ to action and it is our approach that will enable us to do this.
  • Comparing organisational cultures and developing L&D policies that respond to these. Being sensitive to what will work and what won’t.
  • Developing business cases by carrying out a research project related to L&D. Many opportunities include: developing strategy or policy, determining need, designing and evaluating interventions, etc.
  • Assessing the different ways of delivering learning and development in the organisation and how we lead our own teams. L&D spearheads the vital changes and transform the function moving forward.
  • In our understanding of organisational development it is clear that leadership development is a key model for supporting organisational change. How do we develop our leaders?

The huge acceleration in remote working during Covid 19 forces innovation in course design which we need to sustain.

I have really enjoyed supporting the programme and am happy that people have appreciated this with comments such as ‘adaptable to each person’s needs’, ‘very inspiring’ and ‘great at responding to queries’.

Whatever we do we can be a leader and we always have lots of new things to learn.  Long may it continue!  You cannot step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus says, ‘the world will never be the same!’.


Ralph Naylor – DPG Facilitator