By Dave Hickey

Leadership matters most – and is hardest to do well – when people face tangible threats, when old ways of working or interacting with others are no longer possible, and when confusion and anxiety abound.

These are brutal times for business, for business leaders, for staff and their families or dependents.

The third wave of COVID-19, the most aggressive yet, has created possibly more uncertainty and anxiety than during 2020 coming just as we thought the worst was over with the promise of widespread vaccination this year.

Business founders and owners are necessarily optimists. They wouldn’t have started what they did if they didn’t believe things would get better! But even optimists struggle when a disaster like the pandemic threatens to become a catastrophe.

The ability to bounce back and move forward evaporates when people freeze up and freak out—and when they lose trust and faith in one another, in leaders, and in rules, laws, and informal social agreements.

Business leaders know they have to find a way to be resilient; to bounce back. In my experience many will succeed because they know they have no choice. But it can be lonely and stressful when it feels like some much depends on you.

That’s why peer networks and supports available through Local Enterprise Offices can be a great help. They provide opportunities to talk to others with similar experiences or a third party who can provide a different, more removed, but relevant perspective.

A McKinsey paper* authored by two Stanford University professors last year identified three key traits required of leaders tackling the impact of COVID on their businesses.

  1. Personal accountability for making the tough decisions needed speedily with incomplete data. Good leaders focus on what they know now and can still do to protect people and performance.
  2. Skilled leaders demonstrate they care by expressing compassion for the harm and emotional distress inflicted by the crisis at hand and the actions they and their organisation take in response. They acknowledge that the news is bad, and that it may get worse before it gets better. And they are physically and emotionally present.
  3. Sustaining hope for the business and for colleagues. The ability of so many businesses to keep operating and of others to re-open – several times – provides some predictability for staff at least concerning their incomes. Anxiety can be reduced by setting out plans and a vision for what 2021 will look like in a number of scenarios.

Leaders who do these things well create passageways that help people travel from a room called fear to a room called hope. Skilled leaders also sustain that hope by building cultures that are flexible, that celebrate individuality, and that enable employees to be their best selves at work.


*’From a room called fear to a room called hope’ by Hayagreeva Rao & Robert Sutton, McKinsey Quarterly