Friday 13 March 2020 5:49 am

How to lead your business through a crisis like coronavirus

Atholl Duncan is chair of Black Isle Group and a former BBC executive.

Leadership, at every level, is about to be tested in a way in which it has never been tested before. We’re now in uncharted territory in the spread of Covid-19.

The first thing to accept is that leading in a crisis is very different from leading in normal times.

I learned that the hard way — leading teams in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster and the Piper Alpha explosion in 1988, as well as the Dunblane school shootings in 1996.

I was also closely involved in last year’s equine flu incident, which closed down British horseracing for six days — a crisis of contagion with some similarities (but none of the magnitude) to the one that we are dealing with today.

The first lesson is that our bodies and brains behave very differently in the stress of a crisis. 

Our heart rate rises. We perspire more. A battle begins between two parts of our brain — the cerebral cortex which controls the fight, flight or freeze reactions, and the limbic system which is responsible for our emotional responses. Failing to control this battle leads to bad decisions — or no decisions at all.

The best example of this state of mind is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who in 2009 safely landed a plane on the Hudson River after it hit a flock of birds.  His state of “deliberate calm” was what enabled him to make the right decisions to save 155 lives. This is something which pilots practise in simulators, and which our leaders need right now.

The second thing your brain does in a crisis is constantly seek to predict the future. This is an advantage and a disadvantage. As we unconsciously focus on what we expect to happen, we can miss what is actually about to happen — especially if it is something totally unexpected.

So, what can we learn from the past which will help our crisis leaders right now? Focus on what is within your sphere of control and influence. Communicate, communicate and communicate to employees, customers and stakeholders. But don’t think that information alone makes people informed — context and tone is everything.  

Show care and compassion to your people. What you do in a crisis will either create powerful bonds for a lifetime, or bad feelings which never wash away. Be visible. Walk the shop floor. Talk to the people. Reassure them. They will be watching you, and their mood will mirror your behaviour. 

In some circumstances, use humour with your teams. It signals normality and releases endorphins in the brain which counteract the feelings of stress. 

In the first phase of a crisis, people always respond well. It is when the first phase is over that people tire and bad judgements are made. Plan to avoid this. 

Also, remember your duty as a wider corporate citizen. If your business can help the community, not only is it the right thing to do, but it will be highly appreciated. 

Monitor your own energy, stress levels and reactions. You need to keep in good shape to lead your business and your people through whatever will happen next. Watch for fight, flight or freeze responses in your own behaviour. These are the first signs of exhaustion and burnout — normally followed by feelings of being overwhelmed and low accomplishment.  

This period of extreme stress and colossal decisions is, of course, the most important time to turn to a mentor or an executive coach if you have one. Pausing for even 30 minutes of contemplation and respite at key moments is crucial for your own well-being and decision-making, and potentially game-changing for the businesses and the people you lead.

Ironically, this period is also the time when few will take this most valuable of steps.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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