In May, the World Health Organization Office has partnered the end of the Covid-19 global emergency. Finally. But for many leaders, the announcement did little to lighten the burden they carry. While the emergency is over, the crisis is not yet. We are moving from sUDDENLY crisis with the arrival of the pandemic in what we call a continued crisis – a period of ongoing severe difficulty and uncertainty.
The problem with a persistent crisis is that, unlike a sudden crisis, it comes without being obvious signals and no clear start date. As a result, leaders, including those who are good at handling sudden crises, may lose sight of what is needed in the moment. Worse, some of the leadership behaviors that work in a sudden crisis can increase burnout and prevent adaptation to an ongoing crisis. We identify the key differences between sudden and ongoing crises to help leaders understand what lies ahead and how to transform their organizations so they can succeed in this new environment.
Today’s Challenge for Leaders
Today’s leaders face several interconnected problems that Covid has unleashed or exposed: Burnt-out and failed workers, to begin with. Managers navigating hybrid meetings and introducing work-from-home policies as inevitable will fail to satisfy everyone yearning for an explanation. Education leaders wrestle school shooting and a sharp rise in mental health children’s issue. City leaders face off empty downtowns. The list goes on. In many ways, the current moment is not easier than the unexpected events that hit us three years ago.
But this is the different. Consider Ronni Cohn, CEO of SickKids, a high ranking special pediatric hospital. When Cohn started as CEO in 2019, he set out an inspiring vision for precision child health. His hospital will use the integration of data from all domains of a child’s health determinants (genes, biology, environment) to improve child care. It was personally meaningful to Cohn, a pediatrician and renowned geneticist. Then Covid hit. The plan will understandably no longer be the first priority. Three years later, when he began to regain his sight, a long flu season mixed with Covid, severely strained his organization once again. What is the role of vision today? What do his tired staff need?
He was not alone. In an ongoing crisis, the problems are more ambiguous and the tradeoffs less clear. The galvanizing moment is gone. The reserves have been exhausted. This is why leadership is so necessary today: to face and navigate the new challenges of an ongoing crisis.
Identifying and Articulating What’s Different Today – and Why It Matters
Leaders must help their teams understand the difference between a sudden and persistent crisis in order to develop the right mindset for success in this new terrain. Think of an emergency as a sudden crisis – the unexpected, often dangerous situation that requires immediate action – like the spike in Covid deaths in March 2020 or the The mine in Chile collapsed in 2010. A sudden crisis shows a clearly imperative to limit the damage. The stakes are clear and the timeframe is limited. The risk tolerance should be high because the risk of doing nothing is obviously worse.
An ongoing crisis is different. In an ongoing period of great difficulty, turmoil, or uncertainty, the primary goal is to build resilience rather than prevent immediate damage. The stakes are subtle, the timeframe longer. Risk tolerance decreases as people try to return to deliberative decision making as resources become scarcer.
Human reactions also vary: Sudden crises evoke fear and threat anxiety. People wonder: Are we going to be okay? In persistent crises, persistent challenges instead confuse people: Why bother? Knowing how profoundly their world has changed, people yearn for the past and can feel disconnected and adrift.
From Rapid Reactivity to Intentional Activity
What works for a sudden crisis does not work for an ongoing crisis. Later, instead of reacting quickly, leaders should practice deliberate action.
Because speed is essential in an emergency, centralized decision-making for issues that affect everyone is necessary. Consider the speed with which CEOs made decisions about working from home in March 2020. The president of Harvard University, where we work, ordered everyone whose presence is not physically necessary (ie, patient care) to will return home on March 13th. Whether or not to teach almost not left to individual teachers or groups. The centralization and speed of that decision – not very characteristic of the university environment where distributed autonomy and participatory decisions are the norm – is universally accepted because of the crisis. Decisiveness and speed of implementation are paramount. Then, of course, it’s up to individuals and groups to figure out how it all works.
Following this method is now attractive. Making decisions and ordering bold action to fix a problem feels good. But if carried forward through habit into a chronic crisis, this approach can demoralize and frustrate people, while cultivating a habit of prioritizing the urgent over the important. And, continued for too long, these methods defeat the very purpose that drew many leaders to their roles in the first place: a compelling vision for the future.
In a persistent crisis, on the contrary, what is needed is extensive experimentation and local decision-making to involve people in a wide range of priorities, to find new solutions in a decentralized way that inspires. There is a greater emphasis on stopping to learn, explore, and experiment than on moving and moving fast. This is not to say that a sudden crisis does not require experimentation. During the pandemic, many organizations survived through unprecedented levels of local experimentation and learning. But directives for focus are set from above and are often non-negotiable. When a hospital cancels elective surgery, for example, staff focus and experiment to determine how to set up additional pulmonary intensive care capacity. Experimentation and (sometimes painful) learning ensued.
Many leaders show up naturally in a sudden crisis. Taking control felt right. Knowing when and how to transition from this approach is extremely difficult. It requires judgment and intentionality. For example, in a recent conversation one of us (Michaela) had with Ronni Cohn, she reflected, “Early in the pandemic, I knew I had to be the captain of the ship. Now, as the crisis develops and is now developing, I have many roles. He saw the shift and moved with it – finding ways to bring back the big vision while addressing immediate needs. He listened closely to the front lines of the organization and rebuilt a culture of agility.
Leading in a Turbulent World
We identify three key leadership actions that help engage everyone in the continuous learning necessary to thrive in a turbulent world.
First, call attention to the transfer.
Because ongoing crises are focused and vague, it’s easy for everyone (not just leaders!) to miss the change. Clearly state that it is time for a shift to override the automatic sense making of your employees. Such empathy is a central task of leadership. Invite your people managers to stop saying, “Here’s the plan” and start saying, “Here are ways we can experiment to find out what works in this new environment. “
Second, stop rewarding firefighting.
In a sudden crisis, prioritize the urgent. But urgency can become the norm, leaving many teams breathlessly rushing agenda items in a way that prevents questions and considerations long after the emergency. Leaders play an important role in breaking these habits.
Third, widen the aperture.
Create structures and processes for experimentation and improvement that invite a wider range of voices. Some organizations like Haier have taken remarkable steps to flatten their organizations to maintain quick execution while rejecting top-down command. Others continue with process changes (without major structural changes) to build broader engagement such as setting up different teams to improve or design work processes.
As the turmoil continues in the future, reproducing diverse voices through consultative processes is essential. After years of emergency response where directive approaches predominated, today’s leadership teams must deliberately shake up their routines and introduce (or reintroduce) decentralized and collaborative decision making.
The New Reality
Today we live in a volatile and uncertain world. Covid is not the only or last crisis in our life. From climate change to mass bank closures, we don’t have to look far. As former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard professor Lawrence Summers said recently THE audience“This is the most complex, diverse, and conflicting set of challenges I can recall in the 40 years I’ve been dealing with such matters.”
In this new reality, the ability to recognize and transition between a sudden and an ongoing crisis is a core leadership competency. Good leaders will be adept at choosing the right frame at the right time and using it to help their organizations grow.