Crisis and Disruption: A Framework for Leadership

By: David Cumberbatch

The times they are a changing?

Nations are emerging from the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, blinking into the sun on a new day. So it’s tempting to simply allow ourselves to believe that the panic is over and we can revert back to familiar ways of working like putting on an old, favorite sweater. However, it’s clear that things are and will be different. The disruptive nature of the pandemic has challenged the normal “change leadership” that many have relied on in the past. Throughout the crisis, my colleagues have tapped into the deep well of RHR’s 75+ years of experience and have come up with a lot of great insight and advice about leadership through these uncertain times. This post offers a framework to help leaders focus on specific things that they can do to achieve their leadership ends in the challenging environment they currently face.

First, let me share one of the main concepts that underpin the framework; the Bridges Model. It describes individual reactions to change and suggests that change can happen very quickly. However, it highlights that transition takes place much more slowly, and we might add, in some cases not at all. According to the Bridges Model, the process of transition is about moving from what is happening “now” that needs to change, through a “Neutral Zone” where new behaviors are learned and new processes are established, to a phase of “New Beginnings” - an energizing time of clarity on purpose, mission, and the role that everyone plays. Sounds nice, eh? Different organizations, different parts of the same organization, and different individuals will be at very different stages of this.

In times of crisis and disruption like we are going through now, leaders are challenged to cope with change and use its energy as the driving force to travel somewhere new. This framework helps leaders to do just that.

Building the plane while flying it

Dealing with now

In times of crisis people look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance to deal with now. At RHR, we have carefully conceptualized four broad areas that enable leaders to best support and guide their teams during this time. Those are: Inform, Connect Guide and Unite. 

  • Inform: Communicate early and frequently to give clarity and manage expectations
  • Connect: Generate trust and give people the opportunity to express their feelings
  • Guide: Give direction and share concrete actions and steps
  • Unite: Focus on things that bind people and that demonstrate how and why we are all in this together

Part of the challenge for leaders stems from the question ‘how do I provide more reassurance than I, myself, may be feeling?’ and this highlights the often overlooked need for leaders to build their own resilience and look after their own wellbeing.  There is a very good reason why, in the event of an emergency on an aircraft, they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first

Spotting the opportunities: “neutral zone”

“Never let a crisis go to waste” is a well-known line that has fuzzy attribution. Whatever its origins, it is a call to find the opportunities that exist in conflicts and crisis. For example, the financial crisis in 2007/8 gave some businesses the opportunity to rethink the financial and contractual terms with suppliers that had long been in the area of “that’s just the way we do things.” This is the Neutral Zone - time to find new processes and behaviors as described in the Bridges Model.

For businesses emerging from the COVID-19 disruption, this is a clear opportunity to identify either the areas for change that have lacked the energy to push through, or the issues that have surfaced due to the current situation that lead to a rethink. Crisis tends to highlight where the weaknesses are, so it’s a good time to look at ways that processes can change.

For example, one client has spoken to me about the long resistance she had faced in her company to the idea of working from home. What a way to get proof of concept! Another example that is quite specific to the current situation may stem from the fact that people have been (or can be) given greater access to the “outside of work” aspects of colleagues’ lives (kids in the background, the books in the library, pictures on walls, the ways people dress outside of work, etc.). What opportunities does this give for developing insight and closeness in the team?

What to do: “new beginnings”

Leading through transition to a new beginning can be usefully thought of as a process of encouraging new learning. To be holistic and practical, the goals of this learning can be loosely split into three areas: knowing (or head), feeling (heart), and doing (hands). As a leader, this helps to categorize not only what you might want to happen in these areas, but also to look at what is happening as people try to make sense of the change for themselves.

At a high level, senior leaders in the organization should focus on: 

  • Leading the Business: Making complex trade-off decisions on the future direction of the enterprise as a whole and planning across multiple time horizons; connecting future outcomes with short-term imperatives,  (e.g., what decisions are required and what leadership style is needed, recognizing that different organizations and different parts of the organization may be in different places and need different approaches).
  • Leading People: Galvanizing individual and collective effort behind shared goals, (e.g., what has the new situation exposed about current leaders, their capabilities, and how they deal with adversity? Does the new situation mean looking at the succession plan differently?)
  • Leading Self: Focusing on one’s own energy and capabilities; developing resilience and building new skills, (e.g., if the leader’s typical influencing approach is achieved through charisma, proximity, water-cooler moments; how to achieve the same results when the normal tools have gone?)

Taken together, this builds a framework that can make sense of the challenge and help leaders take practical action to manage the transition during crisis and disruption. This is visualized in the nine-box grid, which aligns the head, heart, and hands focus with the leading self, leading people, and leading business levels of leadership impact. While it is populated with illustrative actions, it cannot hope to be exhaustive.

We have, however, leveraged our extensive knowledge of leading in times of crisis in order to create useful and action-oriented blog posts for our community. For our full range of COVID-19 leadership posts, click here.

David Cumberbatch is a partner in RHR International's London office. David brings to RHR a strong track record of more than 30 years of providing assessment and coaching as a trusted advisor to senior executives both in the UK and internationally. He can be reached at dcumberbatch@rhrinternational.com.

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