COVID-19: Will Your Organization Pass the Leadership Test?

When it comes right down to it, crisis management is the ultimate test of leadership. Are you prepared for the challenges to come? Do you have the people in place to help you manage a crisis? Are you prepared to make decisions quickly and assertively?

Ranjit de Sousa
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It did not take long after my plane landed in Singapore to get a glimpse of the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

It was the first week of March and I was arriving in a country that had 112 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That made traveling a challenge and showed me what leadership in a crisis really looked like.

As I passed through passport control and immigration in the terminal, all incoming visitors had their temperatures measured by a new AI-driven scanner developed via a partnership between Singapore’s national health agency and a local tech company called KroniKare.

The company modified an existing technology to create a scanner that could accurately measure elevated temperatures of disembarking passengers—a key sign of possible COVID-19 infection—without requiring them to queue in long lines to be tested with conventional forehead thermometers. It’s also safer for healthcare workers because it means they do not have to come into physical contact with people to take their temperatures.

With its proximity to China, ground zero for the coronavirus, it is not surprising that COVID-19 would be present in Singapore. When you think about the magnitude of the threat, Singapore’s response is truly remarkable. As I visited Singapore to talk with clients about their own COVID-19 challenges, I could only wonder at how quickly and effectively this small island nation had been able to put in place its virus countermeasures. 

This island state of six million people has been cited by many sources as among the best prepared countries in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. They have demonstrated this through diligent transparency and rapid medical responses.

Consider this: Every day, the government sends out an SMS text bulletin to employers that provides an update on new cases and measures being taken to prevent any further spread of the disease. That is a dedication to clear and effective communication that many organizations should emulate.

The Singaporean government is not alone in showing true leadership in the face of this crisis. Many LHH clients I met with in Singapore have also introduced simple and decisive measures to control the spread of the virus. Some of our clients have instituted polices that prevent workers from leaving the floor of an office building where their desks are located. Others have staggered work schedules so that at any one time, only half of all employees are in the office, the rest work at home.

And travel plans have been dramatically curtailed. Many of the client organizations I met with have simply cancelled all business travel to protect their employees and also to ensure that they do not get trapped by quarantines in other countries. An employee from The Adecco Group, our parent company, had recently visited China on business. On a subsequent flight to India, this employee learned that all inbound visitors who had recently been to China would face possible quarantine. Not willing to risk that, this employee landed and found a flight home so he didn’t have to attempt to leave the airport. A very close call.

Add these experiences together, and I gained a new perspective on the importance of effective leadership. I wrote about this issue recently in our flagship quarterly magazine, Transformation Insights, when I encouraged fellow business leaders to do as much advance planning for the next recession as possible so that they are not left scrambling when the downturn hits. It is important to note that organizations that did plan for the pain of a recession are, unsurprisingly, better prepared to deal with the impact of COVID-19.

Most economic observers believe that the coronavirus will hasten the arrival of the next recession. In some countries of the world, that recession has essentially arrived. Economic growth has slowed dramatically or evaporated completely. Some organizations are already downsizing. Others are failing and shuttering their doors.

When it comes right down to it, crisis management is the ultimate test of leadership. Are you prepared for the challenges to come? Do you have the people in place to help you manage a crisis? Are you prepared to make decisions quickly and assertively? Whether it’s a virus outbreak that is closing borders and disrupting supply chains, or an economic downturn, the challenge and the solutions are really the same.

I’m obviously not a physician, but I can tell you that the prescription for an effective COVID-19 response is identical to what organizations need to do to prepare for a recession: plan well in advance of the actual crisis for any contingency, and clearly and concisely communicate with employers about what leaders are doing and how employees will be affected.

Take these leadership best practices and call me after the virus clears. 

About the Author
Ranjit de Sousa is President of Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH). He leads the company's global team including sales, strategy, service innovation and client service. Ranjit is responsible for driving LHH's aggressive growth and diversification plans.

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