Organizational Leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic

The covid-19 pandemic has brought untold suffering to the world population. Some would like to liken it to a black swan crisis whilst other business leaders argue that such a pandemic was a foreseen phenomenon hence business should have been better equipped to handle the effects. One big discussion that arises from the emergence of this pandemic is the issue of the capabilities or competencies of business leaders. Former American President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor”, and this is proving to be the determining factor. In essence, many business leaders blossomed during normal times and performance was at its optimum but leadership should also be judged when tough times arise.

Business leaders have had various reactions to the pandemic and there are a lot of lessons to be deduced from the whole situation.

The first lesson hinges on the importance of strategic planning, this is the process in which a business defines its course of direction guided by the vision and mission. A strategy will outline the long term plans of the organization and will also contain tactics to be implemented to achieve the business goals. Many organizations crafted their strategic plans and followed them religiously then, BOOM, covid-19 struck and derailed the plan and all things began to fall apart. In the words of arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan up until they get punched in the mouth”. All businesses received the “punch in the mouth” but some were quick to adapt thus steering the uncharted waters well whilst others are sinking into oblivion. This separates the well-equipped leaders and the less equipped leaders.

The greatest strategy lesson for business executives is that although there is a culture of conducting strategy reviews or retreats at each year end, it is not enough anymore. Strategy reviews must be done at least every quarter as the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambigous (VUCA) environment does not allow for a business to wait 12 months before assessing impact of strategy and the risk factors that are threatening implementation. The process of reviewing strategy, which requires leaders to conduct environmental scanning and frequent reviews, would have meant picking the threat of Covid-19 and subsequently making pro-active decisions as some countries only started experiencing the effects months later.

Business leaders also ought to learn that strategy should be agile and not cast in stone. Tactics enshrined in the strategy may have to change due to changes in the operating environment.

For example, where pharmacies used to channel a lot of money towards the procurement of pharmaceutical drugs the prioritisation of funds may shift to procuring and selling Personal Protective Equipment due to the increase in demand. Following the status quo without scanning the environment for opportunities will make an organization miss out on serving the market. It is therefore important that leaders desist from following strategy blindly but allow for flexibility in implementation based on market behaviour.

Another lesson is that leaders, especially those in emerging economies, should shift from a narrow mind-set of scanning the environment from a local or regional perspective and do so from a global perspective. Many executives knew about Covid-19 in Africa but thought of it as an Asian or European problem and when it subsequently hit their markets panic ensued.

Many executives who lack foresight and business impact evaluation from a global lense are now hiding their incompetence on labelling it a “Black Swan Crisis” but the virus only hit their markets months later. Therefore leaders should nurture their global awareness competency and consistently scan the environment to mitigate risk factors as well as tap into opportunities that may arise.

Emerging economies have been rigid in adapting to global business trends especially that of the digital revolution. There is still the culture of organizations wanting to have employees work from the office from 8am-5pm or renting offices at extravagant locations for image purposes among others. However the pandemic has indeed proven that people can work from home and actually do the same or even more as compared to being at the office. It is also not necessary to have people drive or fly across cities for meetings, technology can help cut travel and accommodation expenses by doing virtual meetings. The big lesson is that leaders should embrace and invest in infrastructure that facilitates technology usage and not ignore such trends in business.

Consulting during this tough period has led me to develop a model which organizations are capable of implementing in order to steer the ship from succumbing to the turbulence being faced. The model is titled the “Four As model.” .

The first stage is the agility stage, this is the responsiveness stage in which the organization embarks on continuous and consistent environmental scanning so that the leadership is cognisant of the opportunities and threats that will affect the firm. Former American President, Winston Churchill once said, “do not waste a good crisis” which means whenever a crisis ensues there may be opportunities abound within the economy. Jeff Bezos is about to become the first United States Dollars trillionaire in the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic as his business which does online sales favoured the situation. However for others such as those in the travel and tourism sectors the agility stage may entail downsizing and scaling down operations to contain costs to ensure survival.

The second stage is the Adaptability stage in which the firm needs to adapt to the new ways of doing business, such as, harnessing technology to get things done as people work from home. Define your business from the point of view of the need which the organization serves to satisfy and not the product they serve to the market. For example the media industry’s quick shift from hardcopy to electronic copy newspapers is a sign of adaptability within the economic conditions as the need they aim to satisfy is the dissemination of information as opposed to the selling of newspapers or magazines. After succeeding in being agile and adaptable, the third stage is to become aggressive.

Aggression will be required in communication, customer retention and brand visibility in order to ensure that the market does not forget about you. Lastly, in the Accountability stage, leadership has to be accountable for all the three stages mentioned above and ensure all measures proposed are implemented in order to achieve the desired goals. Leaders should desist from the failure mentality which entails constantly providing excuses for poor performance but should however show their leadership prowess by steering the ship to safety.

After all, sustainability or failure will reveal leadership or lack thereof in these circumstances.

Source: Tafadzwa Manhungo*

*Tafadzwa Manhungo is a Management Consultant and Business Advisory Specialist who has consulted for various local and international organizations. He is a holder of a Bachelor of Social Science degree with dual concentration in Economics and Organizational Psychology from Rhodes University and a Master of Business Administration from Midlands State University. He can be contacted on tmanhungo@gmail.com