COVID-19 Crisis and the Implications of the Pandemic on Leadership and Change

Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Author: Christopher Worley

COVID-19 Crisis and the Implications of the Pandemic on Leadership and Change

This blog is a part of our series: Working Together to Go Through Hard Times

I believe that when we reflect on what happened to our world during the COVID-19 crisis – and the role leaders, governments, and organizations played in that - the advantages of organization agility will be even clearer. Agile organizations have the ability to make timely, effective, and sustained change when and where it results in a performance advantage. And when we think about what a post-COVID economy will look like going forward, there may questions about what agility is … but there will be few disagreements about the need to start becoming more agile right away.

Looking back and going forward, I believe there are two important leadership lessons and both of them point to important dimensions of agility. The first lesson is that preparedness and readiness are more important than speed. The second lesson is that centralized command and empowerment can both be effective, but have to be managed.

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. and much of the world was fully committed to maximizing profit through efficiency. Organizations following this strategy were doing well financially, and while I want to comment on the contribution of this approach to the problems of income inequality, the relevant point here is that an efficiency approach winds a system so tightly that a break in any one part is likely to bring the whole thing down. A focus on efficiency takes a very dim view of anything that doesn’t contribute to short-term performance. This is not wisdom, it is trading off our future for the present… a particularly bad approach as global warming accelerates.

The Coronavirus became the one thing that broke the whole system and, in the main, we were unprepared. If we learned anything from the agile organizations we studied, it was that being prepared allows you to act quickly. Almost everyone responded quickly to the pandemic when it arrived at their door. The difference is whether that response was efficient, effective, and respectful or inefficient, ineffective, and disrespectful.

When you are prepared, you can act quickly – with purpose, precision, and efficiency. You honor the people you lead. When you are not prepared, you are forced to act quickly – it is inefficient, reactive, and, frankly immoral. Instead of managing the crisis, you throw resources at the problem and waste lives. As we have seen with our front-line health care providers, being forced to act quickly means that the least among us will bear the burden of that lack of leadership. The price of preparedness is a little inefficiency; the benefits of preparedness are success through adversity and care for our humanity.

The second lesson, that both centralization and empowerment are effective but must be managed, can also address issues of speed.

As the pandemic spread, as leaders understood that it was going to impact their companies and economies, the virus hit organizations and governments that were either centralized or empowered. Either one of these approaches can work quickly if they are understood and designed well.

Centralized decision making allows people to hear about direction with clarity. No competing voices, no noise to wade through, just a clarion call to action. Centralization is a classic, powerful, and potentially effective leadership approach. When decision making is vested at the top – especially in a crisis - an organization or government can act quickly. Centralization allows coordination to be controlled. A centralized voice and direction provides boundaries to action. But it also depends on the maturity of the followers. The speed with which commands take effect depends on the willingness of the followers and their trust in leadership.

However, empowerment can also be effective. As the realization of the pandemic began to hit home, a whole system of mask making emerged without centralized control. The need was clear, the resources were available. When people know that they can act in ways that are consistent with “who we are,” amazing, targeted, and quick actions are possible. Empowered approaches can work well too if the guidelines to production and coordination are clear.

In contrast, empowerment without boundaries is chaos. In the US, when the federal government told the individual states to handle the pandemic -- a very clear message of empowerment and fully congruent with our identity as Americans -- there were no boundaries. The states did not understand or share a belief about the rules of the game. As a result, the states competed for personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, and acceptance of social distancing guidelines. The result was too much diversity, exceedingly high costs, and inefficient resource allocations.

Going forward, my first hope is that leaders and organizations will heed these lessons. They will begin the sometimes daunting task of thinking ahead and preparing – whether that means having conversations about “what we would do if the unthinkable happens” or creating slack resources in the system. They will also think about whether they will choose centralization or empowerment in a crisis and the implications of that choice.

Second, many leaders are beginning to express hope that after the crisis, we will have a more respectful, more compassionate, and more humane society and economy. Leaders playing a symbolic role need to make statements like that. We need the people we look up to to project confidence in the future. It helps us get through a tough day.

But we should make no mistake. Organizations that are not intentional about applying the lessons they have learned in moving swiftly from on premise to virtual work will head back to their offices and the same old behaviors will return. Businesses that want to succeed in the long-term are not waiting to “return to normal.” They are being intentional about gathering the learnings from this shift to virtual work, understanding how it can complement the business model, and integrating it into the way we treat people and the way we work. They will think hard about the way goals are set, work is controlled, people are incentivized and information is shared. There are some powerful lessons to learn from this shock and jolt. We need to start thinking about agility, preparedness, and empowerment now.

About author:
Christopher G. Worley is professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and Strategy Director for the Center of Leadership and Organization Effectiveness (CLEO) at NEOMA Business School in France. He also remains a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC. Chris earned his Ph.D. from University of Southern California.
In addition to his articles, chapters, and presentations on strategic change and organization design, he is author of five books, including The Agility Factor, Management Reset, best-seller Built to Change, Integrated Strategic Change, and ten editions of Organization Development and Change, the leading textbook in the field.

"Working Together to Go Through Hard Times" is an effort from BCon to contribute in providing some insights for leaders to cope with the unprecedented situation like the current COVID-19 pandemic by reaching out to researchers and experts who has been working closely with us to share their views.

The COVID-19 pandemic has its effect far-beyond the spread of the disease itself, it is causing human, economic and social crisis. In the world full of uncertainties, where business-, social-, and political leaders are struggling, we need to, more than ever, collaboratively work together to overcome the difficulties by leveraging our strengths, experiences and expertise.

Hope the writings will be an encouragement to think and act right through the difficult time.

Find more contents around the series here.


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