Strengthening leadership through adversity

We are in the most challenging times any of us have ever experienced. As leaders of organisations across the world grapple with the impacts of COVID-19, they are being tested like never before emotionally, physically, socially, logistically, operationality, ethically and financially.

Every organisation is rightly dealing with the immediate challenges – how to keep their staff and other stakeholders safe, how to contribute to the effort to combat the virus and how to achieve some level of continuity of operations.

But with governments around the world warning that these emergency conditions might continue for six months or more, getting organisations through to the other side intact will require great character – far more than just resilience and robustness – and sound judgement that considers the longer-term impacts on customers, staff, suppliers and communities.

Once we get beyond the extremely urgent tasks, leaders will have many new challenges in the months ahead. Leaders will need to mobilise people, support remote working, leverage technology, adapt processes, sustain employee cohesion, maintain engagement and deliver results – often while grappling with uncertainty in their home lives.

To support leaders through these testing times, we have identified some of the key challenges and some strategies to meet them.


Challenge: Managing a dispersed workforce. COVID-19 is forcing many people to adopt new ways of working as they work from home. How do we do that effectively and be confident it can be sustained?

Strategy: Build virtual leadership strengths. Rapidly accelerate leaders’ capability to shape culture and support people virtually. Draw on tools that offer clarity and guidance. Do not rely on old ways of working, where leaders just add more noise with email messages sent from home.


Challenge: Accelerating responses. Crises demand new things of us and our systems. We may be coping but targeted interventions can make us more successful. How do we identify what needs to change quickly and make it happen?

Strategy: Devolve decision-making. Devolve governance and provide good data so decision-making is moved close to issues. While initially we need someone to clarify the big decisions, centralised leadership disempowers people and is too slow and out of touch with what is evolving rapidly on the ground. Do not try to control all decisions, thereby creating helplessness and nurturing fear.


Challenge: Maintaining engagement. None of us have ever experienced anything like this, so we feel anxious. How do we help our staff focus on service delivery, operational support and new ways of working in the months ahead?

Strategy: Create trust. Build trust through clear, transparent, multi-way conversations that describe the facts and possible scenarios, and demonstrate calm and pragmatism. Do not let mixed messages and rumours fuel anxiety and scepticism.


Challenge: Short-term decisions. In a crisis we often rise to the challenge, but only realise later the deeper impacts on the business and its workforce. These can become bigger problems later. How do we diagnose and fix these underlying issues and address them quickly?

Strategy: Accelerate the shift to the future. Think through how to build the organisation’s or the team’s capability and capacity for the future while adapting to the new way of working. Do not just bunker down and react.


Challenge: Bunker mentality. A crisis can mean we focus on the easy answer and the things we can control. We turn to our colleagues for comfort and support. How do we ensure that we are solving the real problem?

Strategy: Collaborate. New problems require collaboration to resolve quickly, so work with other teams, organisations, commercial partners and the community. Do not just talk to the same people and later rue missed opportunities.


Challenge: Sustainability. Crises often bring out the best in an organisation – suddenly we are collaborating and are entirely focused on outcomes. So how do we make that part of our business as usual?

Strategy: Reflect and learn. Reflect on what we are learning about our organisation’s adaptive capacity and our client’s needs. Use this disruption to rethink, reset and reprioritise. Do not just bounce from one crisis meeting to the next.


It will not be easy, but by working together we are more likely to get through. And if we use the opportunities this tough situation presents, when we reach the other side, we will have an adaptive, collaborative and agile workforce ready to thrive in future.

Prepared with input from Tanya Smith and Penelope Cottrill.

Published on 24 March 2020.


How Nous can help

Rapid response and recovery planning. Nous partners with leaders to facilitate virtual team planning sessions to set short, medium and long-term goals to respond to changing context.  

Leadership team effectiveness. Nous facilitates rapid virtual sessions with teams to define and establish new ways of working as a leadership team. This considers what behaviours, practices and principles needs to change. 

Blended learning delivery. Nous’ short and to-the-point online webinar, supporting tools and virtual coaching series is designed to build leaders’ capability to lead through challenging times – ideal for time-poor leaders with significant management and leadership responsibilities. 

Virtual refresh of your learning program. Nous develops and implements alternative ways to deliver existing leadership development activities. Online learning is a blunt instrument, so we bring expertise in blended learning, combining individual peer and digital components. 

Tactical support and coaching. Nous offers virtual tactical support and coaching for individual leaders (or communities of leaders) to effectively lead in a new environment. Nous provides virtual executive, team or peer coaching between people working on similar problems to share leading practice and provide support.

Communications and change support. Nous provides communications and change support to articulate the key messages and assess and monitor impacts.  

Leadership strategies and assessment. Nous provides learning and leadership strategies for future positioning. True leaders arise during difficult times – Nous can assist to identify talent and plan for retention and succession.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help your organisation’s leaders rise to the challenge of COVID-19.