Begin with yourself: how to lead during COVID-19

Jan Ketil Arnulf

China-based leader and management consultant Thomas Huang on leadership in crises.

Theories on leadership state that companies and leaders should prepare for the unexpected, including a range of crises.

  • Natural disasters
  • Economic catastrophes
  • Physical crises
  • Supply chain breakdowns
  • Personnel crises
  • Information crises

The COVID-19 crisis combines many of these into a perfect storm.

Thomas Huang works with leadership and management for Western companies in China. In a podcast (in Norwegian) Professor Jan Ketil Arnulf and Henning Asklien asked him about his experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak.

 “Crisis leadership in a company is often about technological change, failing sales, high costs or changes in customer groups,” Huang says. “What is special about the current crisis is that it is not only a crisis for the company, but impacts people’s private lives just as much. I understood early on that I had to begin by taking charge of myself. It is easy to feel fear and confusion about what is going to happen to yourself and your family. Unless leaders handle this it becomes difficult to lead others.”

“The most important thing is to take care of your employees,” he continues. “This is not a time to rush deliveries. We have focused on making sure our employees have what they need, and on enabling flexible work hours and working from home.”

“Leaders can experience a need to push themselves beyond their available resources to take care of employees, suppliers, customers, owners and other stakeholders," Huang says. "The constant hunt for information has been especially demanding. On the one hand, information has been limited, on the other hand much of the media information can seem exaggerated. There is a strong need for constantly updated and correct information.”

How should leaders deal with the COVID-19 crisis?

Huang has the following advice for leaders as the crisis hits the rest of the world.

1.      Begin with yourself

  • Find reliable sources of information and keep yourself updated.
  • Do what you can to keep healthy.
  • Avoid sources of infection.

2.      Support your employees

  • Support your employees so that they can support themselves and their families.
  • Help your employees deal with fear.
  • Be flexible about when and where they work.

3.      Take care of your company

  • If possible, increase staffing in key functions such as HR and PR.
  • Plan for maintaining operations with many employees working remotely.
  • Hold management meetings more often to monitor developments. Daily if possible.
  • Use the opportunity to build relations between teams so that you can return stronger after the crisis has passed.

Published 18. March 2020

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