Tough Choices, Kind Actions: 10 new rules for leaders in a crisis

Vanella Jackson
Kindness hero

Never before has corporate leadership been under such an intense spotlight. The COVID-19 crisis is instantly revealing heroes, villains and indecisive prevaricators amongst our leaders, without the slow-burn that we were once used to. Just as praiseworthy comments about kind and helpful CEOs are turning into global viral hero-grams, so the indecisive or heartless behaviour of others in the context of coronavirus is hardening our attitudes towards the organisations that they lead.

When the coronavirus crisis ends, the leaders who have shown kindness to their own teams, consumers, and peers will reap the benefits. Kindness in a crisis is even more powerful and empowering than the kindness of the more ethical, responsible and empathetic age that we were transitioning to well before COVID-19.

Kindness inspires loyalty amongst staff, positive brand appreciation amongst customers, credentials in a world which, as it rebuilds, will need such leaders more than ever. Because they will have demonstrated courage, endured, protected, inspired and offered hope.

Not a wishy-washy kindness, but one built upon strong leadership – because it is strength and the ability to make tough decisions that will help people get through this. Jobs and clients will be lost, partnerships put on ice, plans disrupted perhaps forever. Kindness is the quality we most need now to help us through difficult times and then guide the rebuilding process.

This isn’t a time for leaders to boast or oversell or promise capabilities that their company can’t easily provide. Nor is it a time for competitive wins or self-promotion. If ever there was a time for resilient leaders to be humble, open and kind, then this is it.

But what are the characteristics of kind leadership in a crisis? They can’t just be replicated from what we considered to be kindness traits before our world was plunged into uncertainty. Today, kind leaders need to show up differently. They need to behave, communicate and speak differently. They need to lead differently, be more aware and respectful of others’ needs whilst instilling a sense of steely purpose into decision-making.

A few months ago, we at Hall & Partners along with The Women of the Future and SAID Business School at Oxford University published a series of leadership ‘rules’ that epitomise kindness in a corporate world that needs to be more responsive to purpose-driven cultures. They’re still essential, but we wonder if we need new rules for new times.

1) Be present, visible and determined

Kindness in a crisis requires boldness of action and thought but also in-the-moment leadership. Constant updates that reach far beyond a 9-5 mentality, a willingness to show up when teams need you. When things are tough, the kindest thing that leaders can do is to be there.

2) Altruism is as vital as reassurance

Internally, a comforting arm around the shoulder may reassure but, in the heart of a crisis, a leader needs to show a steelier side. One in which moral guidance and smart economic decision-making go hand in hand. To see the two working together is to demonstrate kindness. Show purpose and a willingness to embrace societal concerns, so that you can dedicate time to helping others.

3) Inspire courage in others

People feel uncertain, perhaps lost, certainly isolated. Kind leaders need to inspire their teams to show strength in the face of adversity, to give them the confidence to express themselves. To find the courage that everyone has but, in the prisons of their own homes, might find difficult to demonstrate.

4) Accelerate and democratise decision-making

If leaders are to embody kindness then they also need to show a determined confidence. Speed is kindness and anticipation of the future is far more vital than assessment of the past. That future is changing with such rapidity that kind leaders need to delegate learning capabilities to others in their team to create a structure of knowledge feedback.

5) Use tough love to inspire confidence

Candid feedback in the moment is essential if teams are to feel motivated, guided and inspired. Try the 3-1 rule: if you have a constructive if negative piece of feedback, first provide three pieces of positivity. That way people relax and are more open to the more difficult bit of candour. Kind leaders need to give their teams space to work things through but they also need to be there to push, inspire and help them fulfil their potential. Be gentle but strong – that’s kindness.

6) Insist on a culture of honesty and transparency

To be truthful is to be kind. This is the type of leadership that demands authenticity and transparency – a ‘this is who I am’ rawness. Equally, teams need to ensure this collective transparent culture extends to their work – they need to express problems, concerns and potential solutions without fear of admonishment.

7) Stand together but be prepared to go it alone

Solidarity and togetherness are of course vital in times of crises. That sense of teamwork can bind people together and foster stronger loyalty. But leaders also need to be prepared to make that first move which will bring along others in their wake. Self-interested decision-making can inspire greater teamwork because people need guidance when there is such uncertainty. Kind leaders know that the ultimate direction needs to come from them.

8) Unleash the inner-entrepreneur

Imagination, spontaneity, creativity – these are the essential instincts that leaders need to both display and inspire. Kind leaders know that a crisis is a chance to inspire people-led innovation. We feel lonely, locked away, isolated from those we care most about. Yet that also provides a chance to focus on showing initiative.

9) Be deliberately calm and boundlessly optimistic

This is a marathon not a sprint and it requires calmness, authority, self-motivation, certainty of direction. Leaders are expected to provide all of these and more yet they are enduring the same chaotic uncertainties as the teams they lead and the brands they embody. If positivity isn’t there, then fake it. Sometimes, that’s the kindest thing you can do. Leaders need to push themselves in a time of crisis and find that inner-strength.

10) Support to beat isolation

Regular digital meet-ups boost self-esteem and motivate. Also remember to support, empower and show empathy – perhaps by showing that you too are vulnerable. Not weak but vulnerable, allowing yourself to accept the empathy of others. Kindness works both ways.

These are some of the virtues and themes we have been thinking about and observed. We would love to hear your thoughts on how kind leaders need to show up in this crisis, so we can expand on these ideas and observations and ultimately identify some new rules to guide us all.

We look forward to hearing from you.