Dr. James Barker was a speaker on an on-line panel discussion, Leadership in a Crisis – Covid19, hosted by the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance. This virtual panel brought together leaders from the political realm, not-for-profit sector, and academia to discuss how our public organizations can maintain and sustain their vital services in this unique and difficult time.
Dr. Barker shared his thoughts with CEGE Connection.
Any crisis situation, and we are all in the middle of a ‘100 year’ crisis event right now, puts the actions of organizational and political leaders into sharp relief. Since we are all in the middle of that experience together and since we are all have been experiencing organizational and political crisis leadership, let’s consider how we envision leadership in a crisis, particularly leadership as it comes from our organizations like businesses or government institutions or nonprofit institutions. As we watch the media these days, we see a lot of information. We see a lot of graphs, a lot of charts, a lot of projections as to what numbers will be, what time we can come out of lock down, what time we can get the economy back, losses, and many other bits of information for us to process. All of those numbers, all of that information, only informs. The decisions that we make and the choices that we make right now, they inform us. The charts and data cannot tell us exactly what these choices will be. They just inform those choices. That is why we need good judgment. And that is really key for us to understand, because in terms of leadership, what is presented in times of crisis are those moments of judgment and how those moments of judgment are communicated.
In organizations, especially in crisis situations, decisions are contingent on much more than one person saying, ‘do this.’ All decisions, all actions are collective, with a collective exchange of ideas, collective sharing of information, reactions to various information, reactions to statements by leaders, by their constituents. It is a community. A collective communicated phenomenon that is going on in real time. Navigating that phenomenon positively and usefully requires good judgment. So that is why those moments of judgment are so important for us out there. And now how do we get there? How do we try to position ourselves as leaders in these kinds of situations to be able to effectively respond to those moments of judgment?
There are three key leadership elements we see coming from the research.
The first key element is about stability. We need stability. We need to feel a sense of stability in how we make sense of what is happening in front of us. But stability does not mean everything is constant, that everything is just status quo, the way life was before the crisis. It does not mean that at all. For us, stability means our ability to move forward in a useful, positive way. That is what we need to have a feeling of stability. We need to know that we are moving forward, that we are making progress, and we are doing that usefully. And that is what we look for organizational and political leaders to provide in times of crisis. We need the leaders to project that way forward through the uncertainty that we are existing in in the present moment. We need to feel that work is getting done, that we are moving forward in a positive direction. It is that general feeling that we have as members of the organization, members of the community, that we are moving forward effectively and adapting fittingly. But remember, stability does not mean exactly constant. It means moving forward usefully, moving forward in a good direction that we are all doing that together. We have to be able to change and adapt and to do that movement effectively.
A key way for leaders to create stability is to focus on the organization’s purpose – what is the organization there to do, right now? What is the purpose of the organization in this particular crisis? Getting clarity on purpose, at this moment is time, is fundamental and foundational for a leader facing a crisis.
The second key element is confidence. We need to have a degree of confidence that we are moving forward. So, on one hand, we need the stability, that stable ability to move forward. But we also need to have confidence that we are indeed moving forward. And that is very much a communicative element. Interestingly, confidence is a felt experience, we feel it or the lack of it in our real-time experience, it is a communicative phenomenon, a collective communicated phenomenon. For example, if a leader in a crisis time is projecting a sense of empathy and setting a useful tone for engagement, projecting that sense about genuine care, the leader creates confidence that we are moving forward in that useful direction. We need to hear messages that give us confidence in our forward movement. Much has been made in recent news articles about the leadership qualities of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, especially her talent for empathetic leadership, who has faced a number of significant and highly visible crises in her short time in office. If you read any of the articles on her leadership, notice how her use of empathy creates confidence in the people, confidence that she is moving the country in the right direction.
The third key element is consistency. An essential part of sustaining confidence is to have a consistent message. These days, we are all used to seeing our Prime Minister talking about our Country’s COVID 19 response at a set time each day. We have the Premiers and Provincial Medical Officers all talking at set times, each day. It almost seems trite, but it is actually very important to have that degree of consistency. The message is that we get to stay at home. Wash your hands. All those kinds of messages are pivotal to what we are doing and what we need to be doing. Note too, that consistency does not mean staying the same. We all understand, especially in a crisis, that changes and adaptation happen. In fact, we expect to adapt as we learn more in a crisis. The key is to link the message changes and adaptions back to the level of confidence in moving forward toward a stable purpose. We are changing because we need to change to keep moving toward our purpose.
Consistency gives us confidence, which gives us stability. If we lose any one of those, if we lose consistency, we lose confidence. If we lose confidence, we lose stability. We lose stability, then we as a people, as an organization, will struggle. And we will keep struggling until we get stability, confidence and consistency back. Stability, confidence, and consistence are the imperatives for any organization facing a crisis.
I want to close by coming back to judgment and the space for judgment. Again, remember, all the information that we have coming at us in a crisis only informs what we do, how we think, how we act. The information does not determine action. What we look for in leaders, particularly leaders in organizations and government, is to provide that sense of good judgment and to help us understand what are the choices that we need to be making right now so that we can move forward in a good, useful way – with stability, confidence, and consistency. In these times of crisis, we need to be able to take short term actions through which we can see a long-term benefit and a way of getting out of the crisis situation. So, for our COVID 19 crisis, things as simple as washing your hands, staying home, all those elements become important. What can we do as a people, as members of the organization to help achieve our purpose, right now? The answer to that question starts with a consistent message that builds confidence, that gives us the stability that we need to move forward effectively and usefully in a crisis.
James R. Barker is the Herbert S. Lamb Chair of Business Education in the Rowe School of Business and leads the SafetyNET-Rx and Health Assured Pharmacy Safety Research Consortiums. Professor Barker’s research interests include complex organizational behaviour, ethics and sustainable processes with a particular focus on leadership, safety, change management and stakeholder engagement. With past experience in aviation safety and public policy, he now studies safety enhancements in Canadian community pharmacies. He is a past academic journal Editor-in-Chief and has received numerous professional honours, including a career achievement award from the International Communication Association. His publications span a variety of fields including management, information technology, pharmacy, education, and psychology. Professor Barker is a former U.S. Army officer and has served as a faculty member at prestigious US and New Zealand Universities. He has management industry experience in transportation and consultative experience with a number of industries and government organizations.