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Why Crisis Leadership Can be a Missed Opportunity for Change

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(2 October 2020)

by Marlies Veestraeten, Assistant Professor, Organizational Behavior, Neoma Business School, France.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put countries, organizations, and people in "survival mode". Worldwide, leaders of nations, public institutions, and private organizations are still navigating through this crisis in a variety of ways. The coronavirus has urged governments and other types of organizations to take brisk measures to minimize damage in terms of the spread of the virus, number of infections, societal and economic consequences, organizational longevity, employee layoffs, etc. Although crises come with a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity, they also present an opportunity for change (Fragouli & Ibidapo, 2015; Jaques, 2007; Wang, 2008). So, paradoxically, crisis leadership may actually hinder deep learning and real reform.

Crisis leadership or change leadership?

Crises are often managed by adopting mindsets and taking actions that focus on "bringing things back to normal" as quickly as possible (Boin & 't Hart, 2003; Jaques, 2007). This implies that leaders take control, emphasize existing values, and rely on traditional "savoir faire" so that stability will soon return. It is a comprehensible reaction to defend the structures and policies that are already in place in order to diminish the unsettling sense of disruption. However, this kind of response limits the extent to which current practices and states of affairs are questioned and it does not promote the exploration of novel ideas and approaches that may actually be more effective and sustainable in the long run (Boin & 't Hart, 2003).

Crises are perceived as a significant threat to nations' and organizations' stability and survival (Wang, 2008). In times of disruption, people look to their leaders to act and alleviate uncertainty. The same conditions hold in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The general public tends to rely on its leaders and institutions to have its best interests at heart in terms of safety and wellbeing. Likewise, employees expect their leaders and top management teams to communicate with confidence about having things under control, to provide feasible solutions, and to minimize layoffs and pay cuts. Fundamental organizational change and reform imply a critical questioning of and departure from the status quo. Leaders could actually use the disruption a crisis brings as a window of opportunity by acknowledging that current practices and beliefs are, in fact, suboptimal and that change is needed (Boing & 't Hart, 2003). Yet, the priorities set during crisis leadership – that is, controlling damage and reaffirming existing modes of action that will restore stability – inherently reflect the idea that a crisis is not a good time for change. The more leaders focus on ending a crisis as rapidly as possible, the less they may question their usual modus operandi.

Crisis leadership implies being constructive: finding suitable responses to operational and tactical issues as fast as possible. In dealing with a crisis, leaders reassure stakeholders of the fact that pre--existing policies and practices were and will continue to be effective (Boin & 't Hart, 2003). In doing so, they swiftly make crucial decisions (even bypass routine decision-making procedures to act faster), use a top-down approach without much bottom-up input, and communicate convincingly about the path taken (Boin & 't Hart, 2003; Thach, 2012). In addition, they try to pay attention to human needs and concerns, show understanding, and rebuild trust (Carroll & Hatakenaka, 2001; Thach, 2012).

In the current context of the COVID-19 crisis, public leaders introduce different measures to ensure damage control. For instance, people are asked to engage in social distancing, wear mouth masks, and stay in confinement when needed. Most public leaders also increase investments in medical material and support for healthcare professionals to help them cope with the large numbers of infected citizens. The underlying rationale is that after the virus reaches its peak, things can slowly but steadily go back to how they were before. Private and other types of organizations also react with different measures: employees are required to work from home or work part-time. Other workers are being prepared for cost cutting or even layoffs. Again, these actions are based on the expectation that after a certain period of time everyone can get back to business as usual.

Change leadership entails but goes further than crisis leadership: it requires more than being constructive and finding suitable responses to current issues. It means starting with being deconstructive (Boin & 't Hart, 2003). Deconstructive in the sense that leaders fundamentally question the legitimacy and effectiveness of existing policies and practices. Only afterwards, they can become constructive again by building alternative visions and narratives that suggest different ways for a more durable future.

Drastic change and reform start with asking uneasy but critical, essential questions. Change leaders ensure involved parties (managers, employees, citizens, colleagues, etc.) that the desire to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible is a normal response but that it may not be the optimal choice in the long term. Rather than interpreting the crisis as a threat and rapidly acting upon it to make it go away as fast as possible, the state of ambiguity can be used as a learning opportunity and a momentum for change. Rethinking the status quo and considering drastic reform can lead to increased organizational vitality, adaptation, and viability (Barnett & Pratt, 2000; Stern & Sundelius, 2002, Wang, 2008). To this end, different stakeholders' reactions and dissent are considered valuable sources of information (Burnes, Huges, & By, 2016).

The Coronavirus pandemic is a "wicked" problem for which there is no list of perfect measures to take or decisions to make (Jain, 2019). Given that the current situation is tremendously complex, the majority of people are drastically pulled out of their comfort zones and have to make sense of a situation they never imagined before. The chaotic and uncertain period that countless countries and organizations are going through, however, could be used as a window of opportunity to start thinking of possibilities for change. For example, governments could ask themselves if their governance systems, economic models, and societal structures will continue to be viable. Future pandemics are not a matter of "if" but of "when" and "how." The current ways of leading and distributing resources may not continue to be effective nor sustainable. Plenty of organizations may have some soul searching to do when it comes to valuing employees who keep production processes running and ensure quality on the frontlines, or how current organizational values and practices can be critically evaluated and changed for the better.

From crisis to change… not the other way around

Change leadership requires courage. It may initially involve more uncertainty and even resistance. Leaders who aim to challenge current states of affairs in chaotic, insecure times should thoroughly consider opposite points of view, envision the long-term consequences and potential improvements to the best of their abilities, and gather broad support for their cause from the different parties involved and affected (Boin & 't Hart, 2003). Yes, engaging in change leadership during a crisis can be risky because proposing radically new visions and approaches can worry or upset different stakeholders or worse, generate another crisis. However, when its aim is to create purpose and ensure sustainable organizing in the future, it may be worth its while (Heifetz & Linsky, 2017).

(*) In this article, key take-aways for leaders of public and private organizations are discussed based on Boin, A., & 't Hart, P. (2003). Public Leadership in Times of Crisis: Mission Impossible? Public Administration Review, 63(5), 544-553.

Marlies Veestraeten Marlies Veestraeten is Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Neoma Business School, France. She obtained her PhD. in Business Economics at the Faculty of Economics and Business of KU Leuven, Belgium. Her research focuses on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and team functioning. She has participated in several conferences of the International Leadership Association.

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