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True Leaders

23 Apr 2020

What are the characteristics of a true leader? True leaders are ones who lead in bad times as well as good. The ones everyone looks to for guidance especially in difficult times.

Our own Taoiseach won even the most cynical of political hearts in his initial address to the nation on the Covid-19 p andemic. He laid out the facts clearly, acknowledging the difficult role we all had to play in preventing the disease spreading, highlighting the heroic work of frontline workers and setting out the initial plan for the nation not only for the lock-down but for the recovery. He explained what was to be done if our country was to get through a crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before. He was calm, brutally honest yet reassuring and had his audiences nodding in agreement. In short, he was the epitome of leadership. But what of the leaders in business?

The actions of a business leader during times of crisis are critical; from the decisions they make to the way they communicate those decisions to their workforce. The consequences of Covid-19 for businesses and ultimately their employees has been nothing short of staggering. The economy has ground to a virtual halt and according to a recent survey by Chambers Ireland, half of Irish SMEs expect revenue to decline by at least 60% by the end of June. However, as economist David McWilliams has said, “we don’t have an economy in recession, we have an economy in paralysis”. And when this paralysis is over, it’s those companies whose leaders have acted decisively and swiftly yet with great thought for their employees who will recover the fastest.

From large multinationals to SMEs, no company has been left unaffected. For CEOs and MDs, there were a number of factors to take into consideration and all have involved the key characteristics of a great leader; decisiveness, resilience, courage, honesty, vision, integrity, accountability, delegation and humility.

Communication Strategy: A great leader knows that keeping people (clients, general public and their employees) in the dark is not an option. Keeping everyone informed albeit even briefly of plans for the business is key. Whether it’s offering options to work from home, decisions on pay-cuts, changes in product / services, on-going communication with everyone is vital so that rumours can be dispelled easily. A “We’re All In This Together” mentality also goes far in raising staff morale as well as engendering loyalty.

Health & Safety of Employees: While many leaders of today have gone through a recession (some more than once), this pandemic is nothing like anything undergone before. The health and safety of employees has been key and if a leader is shown not to care or not to make adjustments, this can affect staff morale and ultimately the brand. Leaders had to make several key decisions in this regard. Enabling a “working from home” option was key in the initial stages, so too was planning for it. Listening to those working in HR as well as IT would give leaders the right tools to plan for a mass working from home option.

Listening to operational staff would give key insights for those in manufacturing on how to best approach health and safety of employees still working. Some plants in FMCG, medical devices and equipment have adjusted both shift times and workforces to ensure that the companies are observing social distancing. This allows for the business to continue but also prioritises the health and safety concerns of those still working.

Future of the Business:  Some companies in the fashion, manufacturing and FMCG sectors have been able to re-tool their lines in order to take part in the national and global efforts against the pandemic. Innovation by leaders (or at least, a willingness on the part of leaders to listen to innovative ideas from their workforce) has meant that a large number of manufacturing plants are still open for business, keeping people in work.

Where the possibility of keeping the office physically open is no longer an option, business leaders in many cases have been able to successfully enable working from home for their employees. Some, with an eye to the future and recovery, have quickly moved to reduce working hours so that they can continue to keep all of their staff employed. Others have moved equally quickly to avail of government support for their businesses and employees in order to be able to return to a viable business when this is over. In each case, what is important here is the swiftness of a decision and the manner in which this has been communicated. Again the humility and positivity of a leader plays a huge part here. If staff are taking a pay-cut, it’s important for them to know (a) the reasons for it and (b) that directors / senior staff are also taking a pay-cut.  

Public Perception: In months and years to come, organisations and their leaders will be judged on how they reacted in this time. In the past, brands have suffered because of bad decisions on the part of their leaders. This in turn has affected the business both in terms of the bottom line and staff morale as well as staff turnover.  As Leo Varadkar said in his historic address, “let them say when things were at their worst, we were at our best”.

For business leaders, this is a time of hardship and change. Good leaders will have acknowledged what is happening, then have focused on what can be done whilst recognising and doing their best to mitigate the hardships that their employees have to endure. It is ultimately what they will be remembered for!

We will, as a nation, recover from this and Brightwater are here to help you anyway we can. 

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