Leadership During Disruption

Feb 5, 2021  | Thought Leadership

The events of 2020 and 2021 present numerous opportunities for analyzing leadership during disruption. Countless stories are told about how leaders in businesses and organizations have overcame incredible difficulties and continued to succeed. While there is no universal formula for successful leadership during times of disruption, there are positive action steps that leaders can and should take to lessen the negative effects of disruption.

One of the first things to recognize is that there truly is a disruption. A global pandemic certainly qualifies, but there are many others large and small: Significant market changes, changes in leadership, technological innovation, an economic downturn, and many others qualify as disruptions.

In general, a “disruption” may be classified as a condition which requires a significant organization change which, if not addressed, may threaten the existence or long-term success of the entity.

The Leader’s Role During Disruptions

One role of the leader is to recognize that a disruption exists. Recognition requires active and continuous assessment of the environment, which is directly linked to strategic planning (which was discussed in SCP’s webinar in January ).

Leadership during disruption may begin with the recognition of the disruption, but efficiently and successfully leading teams during disruption continues with setting the conditions for organizational success. At least three conditions must be present for an organization to rapidly identify and effectively deal with disruption:

  • The organization is living its values;
  • There is trust between leaders and their teams; and
  • Leaders effectively communicate with empathy, candor, and courage.


Values and Trust Lessen Disruption’s Negative Effects

For many organizations, values look like a plaque on the wall, a pithy tag line, or pro-forma start for a strategic plan. Values should represent the guideposts for behavior of every member of a team. Values should guide the daily decisions of leaders, particularly in times of disruption. Values should be seen in the manner in which leaders make decisions and in the ways the organization implements them. And values should be evident in the daily conduct of the entire organization. There is great comfort in knowing what to expect from leaders. Values invite team members to take risks and support an organization because they feel they can trust their leaders.

Trust is choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.

Charles Feltman, “Thin Book of Trust”

People in all roles in organizations make decisions to extend trust every day. Making and delivering on commitments to the team is a clear example of leader behaviors that engender trust. However, in times of disruption the stakes in trust decisions are so much higher. From risking personal health and safety to risking livelihoods, during disruptions, leaders ask much from their team members. If a bedrock of trust does not exist, team members may be reluctant to “do what has to be done” for the continued survival of the organization. Moreover, if trust does not exist, team members may be unwilling to speak up and share information or ideas that may be critical to successfully addressing the disruption.

The Importance of Communication Cannot be Overstated

At no time is communication more important than during times of crisis and disruption. Timeliness and consistency of messages are vitally important. Team members are much more willing to stay focused on the mission if they know that they are receiving candid communication in a timely manner. Further, they will likely go above and beyond when leaders speak with empathy and candor and solicit feedback from their teams. Well-developed two-way communication channels benefit team members who are responsible for doing the work, and benefit leaders by creating opportunities for more innovative ways to more effectively address the disruption.

Not having these conditions in place before a disruption occurs places organizations at significant risk. Developing these three conditions during a period of disruption is an incredibly heavy lift. Fortunately, committed leaders can create opportunities to develop an organization that lives its values; can develop greater trust between leaders and those led; and can dramatically improve their communications.

There are specific organizational development and training interventions that can support leaders in their efforts to improve these three conditions. Leaders should not wait for the next disruption to address these conditions. The good news is that an organization that lives its values, cultivates trust, and communicates well is generally successful – during disruptions as well as during normal conditions.

Tony Stamilio

Senior Consultant and Executive Coach

Share facebook share icon twitter share icon linkedin share icon email share icon