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The Essence Of Resilient Leadership: Business Recovery From COVID-19


Whereas organizations used to describe agile change as “fixing the plane while it flies,” the COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the rules of upheaval in modern times. Those leading any organization are not fixing the plane in midair, we’re building it. Times like these need leaders who are resilient in the face of such dramatic uncertainties.


The first article in this series described the essential foundations leaders need in order to effectively navigate through the crisis. Resilient leaders are defined first by five essential qualities of who they are, and then by what they do across three critical time frames: Respond, Recover, and Thrive.


As we progress into the Recover phase of the crisis, resilient leaders recognize and reinforce critical shifts from a “today” to a “tomorrow” mindset for their teams. They perceive how major COVID-19-related market and societal shifts have caused substantial uncertainties that need to be navigated—and seized as an opportunity to grow and change. Amid these uncertainties, resilient leadership requires even greater followership, which must be nurtured and catalyzed by building greater trust. And resilient leaders start by anticipating what success looks like at the end of recovery—how their business will thrive in the long term—and then guide their teams to develop an outcomes-based set of agile sprints to get there.


The mindset shift: From today to tomorrow

Some have said that the COVID-19 world has only three days in the week: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In that spirit, resilient leaders need to shift the mindset of their teams from “today” to “tomorrow,” which involves several changes that have important implications for the path to recovery:


  • The situation shifts from the unpredictability and frenetic activity of the early Respond period to a more settled, though still uncomfortable, sense of uncertainty (an “interim” normal).

  • The focus of leadership expands from a very inward focus on employee safety and operational continuity to also include embracing a return to a market-facing posture. Leaders should envision the destination in terms of desired stakeholder outcomes, not internal processes.

  • Management goals shift from managing the crisis—keeping the organization functioning—to managing the transition back to a restored future. This may require different skill sets than what was needed in the Respond phase.

  • Planning shifts from short-term contingency planning to mid- and long-term economic and scenario planning to understand the related impacts on operations, employees, financing, and so forth. It is critical to model the alignment of financial resources to the cash required to ramp-up operations.

  • Leadership attitude shifts from a primarily reactive mode to anticipating how to reinvent the organization. Leaders should seize the opportunity to energize their teams by imagining a successful future and embracing trust as the catalyst to get there.


Trust as a catalyst of recovery

During the Recover phase, resilient leaders need to inspire their teams to navigate through these significant COVID-related uncertainties. But great leadership requires even greater followership—and followership is nurtured by trust. Indeed, many leaders have built a significant bank of trust from deftly navigating through the early frenzied unpredictable stages of the crisis.


Trust is actionable and human. It is nurtured and built among stakeholders along four different dimensions: physical (trust that your physical space is safe), emotional (trust that your emotional and societal needs are being safeguarded), financial (trust that your financial concerns are being served), and digital (trust that your information is secure).


And trust starts at the interpersonal level. For example, trust may be built among employees when leaders thoughtfully consider how to reengage the workforce in the office (such as by reconfiguring the space to honor social distancing), or when they go to great lengths to preserve jobs in addition to profits. Similarly, trust may be built among customers when organizations add extra security measures to protect customer data from cyber threats.


As organizations emerge from Recover and transition into the Thrive phase, trust, coupled with the five qualities of resilient leadership outlined in the first article of this series, serves as a strong foundation on which resilient leaders can build business models to address the new markets that will emerge.


What’s normal … next?

Resilience is not a destination; it is a way of being. A “resilient organization” is not one that is simply able to return to where it left off before the crisis. Rather, the truly resilient organization is one that has transformed, having built the attitudes, beliefs, agility, and structures into its DNA that enable it to not just recover to where it was, but catapult forward—quickly.


To learn more about what it takes to be a resilient leader during the Recover phase, please click here.


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