Contributed By: Yash Pratap Singh
Picture Credits: Kushagra Agarwal
Leadership gets tested in times of crises more than anything. Till last month, I was trying to keep a tab on the pandemic numbers with a fudgy internet connection. I use a 4G network of a firm that recently raised billions from various investors, yet the max my 4G could afford was a poor quality video streaming with buffers. As a matter of checking things and being a student, I kept checking tabs of various universities. Most top American universities had a COVID response page (check HBS, Wharton, MIT, Stanford, Kellogg, etc.). I could find only one-two Indian universities having such a page (ISB and there could be more, but I couldn’t find them). Most such pages issue updates and guidelines at a reasonable frequency. Regular communication by leadership becomes essential in times of crisis, and these pages are demonstrative of that.
Let me go back to the original topic of leadership getting tested in a crisis. The leadership in an emergency is demonstrated by actions along with, and more importantly, by words and communications from the leader. In a crisis such as COVID-19, when things get clouded by uncertainty and availability of information, people tend to get uneasy and exasperated. As the Ellsberg Paradox illustrates, people tend to have an aversion to ambiguity, and they look for transparency and certainty (or perhaps predictability). The role of communication from the leaders becomes very critical at this juncture. As Prof. Godhwani of IIMB in his brilliant article mentions that, “The post Covid19 world, more than ever, needs to hear words of reassurance, resilience, and trust from leaders who in turn have to be upfront, raw and unfiltered.” It is now more than ever, that empathy, clarity, and transparency matter. As an Indian business leader, Anand Mahindra put it, “Empathy, not bureaucracy, makes organizations great.”
During the pandemic, I got an exposure to both sets of communications—a collection of interactions that evoke trust, optimism, and hope. And, conversations that felt blunt, devoid of empathy, and even lacking clarity. Moreover, Indians at large got exposed to ambiguity and lack of clarity and transparency with a plethora of guidelines and clarifications. It made me ponder over what it means to communicate like a leader in situations of uncertainty like the current COVID pandemic. Here are a few things that I felt an ideal communication should have,
- Empathy: After all, we are humans (and it includes the leaders too). We all have been impacted in some way or the other with the pandemic (some more than others). Communication from the leaders has to have a human touch. It should resonate with the feelings of individuals who are hearing them or reading them. The emails, filled with obscure words written in an ad hoc way, are generally devoid of it. Compelling and inspiring communication should instil calm and confidence among the audience, along with caring for their feelings.
- Clarity: A crisis like COVID where we have no clue as to how it will end? When will it end? Whether it will end or not? Clarity becomes a critical fulcrum for effective communication by leaders. I do feel that leaders have a lot of unknowns themselves about the crisis. They [leaders] also have to think and make a lot of trade-offs. But, clarity is not one of them. Your message should be clear and straightforward. The attention span also gets tampered when the mind battles an uncertain situation. Hence, clarity becomes even more essential to taper and distil out meaning and action from the communication.
- Transparency: It is often said, ‘transparency builds trust.’ And you need ‘trust’ in crisis more than ever. Leaders need to think loudly with the audience (whether it is the employees, students, etc.) and even involve them. If people are aware of what is going on in the background, the thought process behind every decision, it will make them trust more in the organization as well as the leaders.
- Frequency: In times of crisis, people can lose heart quickly. Hence, a repeated conversation from the top inspires people to gather confidence and spirit. It is in times such as these, leaders should move out of the way to reach out more frequently than ever. It is at this time they should also listen to the concerns of their audience and show that they are valuable and their inputs matter. Frequency of communication thus becomes an essential pillar of leadership in a situation of crisis.
A crisis tests the resolve and resilience of the person or an institution. It is said quoting former Intel CEO Andrew Grove, “bad companies are destroyed by crisis, Good companies survive them, and great companies are improved them.” A vital attribute of those great places is leadership. And one secure characteristic of strong and robust leadership is effective communication. We can’t aim to build resilience in the absence of effective communication. A letter by Airbnb CEO got viral on social media, which he wrote to his employees as the firm downsized its human capital. It is an excellent example of an empathy-driven approach to communicating. I feel, within our own country, i.e., India, we have paid less attention to the concepts of communication, articulation, empathy, mental well-being, and others. Maybe this attitude is the vestige of long colonial rule when the Brits ruled upon us and before that Turks and Mongols in the form of Sultanate and Mughals. However, it is high time that we pay attention to them, teach them, and imbibe them as we create our next generation of leadership talent. And one of the best ways to do that would be to lead by example by our current leaders.
Yash and Kushagra are students of PGP 2019-2021 batch of IIM Bangalore.