New policy announcements and changes to government lockdown advice across the UK mean that for many businesses and their leaders this week feels like the transition to a new phase in dealing with this epidemic, and as with any transition this can bring both enhanced opportunity to restart their business, but also greater risks as people return to work while the virus is as contagious as ever.
For leaders, this transition brings with it new and different challenges. At lockdown, leaders had to make some very big decisions fast, to close premises, furlough staff, move to ‘on-line only’ services. Centralised leadership with short decision-making chains suited those circumstances. But now a successful easing of lockdown is going to require myriads of smaller but vital decisions, that take account of local conditions, physical space restrictions, local school opening patterns, socially distanced travel to work and many more. To make those sorts of decisions requires distributed leadership at all levels – and crucially senior people who are now willing and able to share control.
We’ve described, in a previous blog, this situation is neither a marathon nor a sprint, but a leadership task of unknown duration with few defined milestones along the way. And what that requires is a level of leadership endurance that is unreasonable to generate on your own. Instead this is the time to be sharing the task of leadership – and sharing control – with your peers, with your direct team, and in some situations with your wider stakeholders.
Sharing control with your team – it’s tempting to try to protect your direct reports from the many uncertainties and challenges on your to do list. But our clients, and our own experience tell us that what teams want from their leader in times like this, is an open dialogue about the dilemmas and the risks ahead. However bad things may look, its better to be able to talk about it within the team than for fear to grow unvoiced. Trust your team to handle the difficult messages.
Sharing control with your colleagues – we see many leaders working incredibly hard through this lockdown trying to what’s best for their organisation. But sometimes this means taking on accountability for all sorts of areas that in calmer times would be on the to-do list of their peers. This can, in turn, lead to overlaps, misunderstandings, and stress. Taking excessive accountability is a natural leadership response to the crisis, but as we move into a different and longer phase, it’s better to focus clearly on critical elements of on your own job whilst trusting colleagues to do theirs.
Sharing control with stakeholders – no-one can know what sort of market their business will be operating in when we eventually emerge into a post-Covid 19 world, but in many cases it will be one where the previous needs of stakeholders cannot be met in the way they were before. Financial returns, service availability, supply chain lead times, and many other parameters of stakeholder expectation may have to change radically. This can be a recipe for sleepless nights – but it can also be the reason to work with your stakeholders and share control for resolving these issues. When a system is the subject to a significant shock, a sign of its resilience is the ability for many elements to shift and absorb a share of the blow. In leadership terms that requires a willingness to share control with all parts of the system – including stakeholders.