How learning in a crisis can build more resilient leadership

leadership

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Helen Civil, Head of Communications, The Resilience Shift


  • The Resilience Shift project focuses on the urgent need to secure the world’s future through resilient infrastructure, the critical nature of which has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • As part of the project’s leadership programme, the project aims to better understand how leaders make decisions at times of crisis and how they can form critical decision-making skills before a disaster happens;
  • The programme has already yielded a series of insights transformative behaviours that can help people to lead in a crisis.

COVID-19 has highlighted how vital infrastructure is in supporting the functions on which society relies, such as healthcare and food production. An equivalent to 45% of the sea freight capacity between Europe and Asia and the transpacific region was cancelled within a few weeks of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, for example.

It has never been more important to have infrastructure networks that are resilient and some are taking the opportunity to learn from the crisis.

The Resilience Shift is focused on the urgent need to secure our future through resilient infrastructure. It highlights the opportunities for recovery to transform our infrastructure and build long-term resilience while contributing to the UN’s SDGs.

Dr Juliet Mian, Deputy Executive Director and leader of the programme’s technical activities, explains: “We think about resilience as our ability to withstand, adapt to and recover from disruption due to a sudden shock, rapidly changing circumstances or chronic stress.”

Noting that climate-related disasters have cost the world $650 billion in the last three years, she adds: “This crisis is an opportunity to consider our resilience – not just to COVID-19 and the wider impact it is having on the economy, but also to an uncertain future and to climate change, another much bigger slow-onset crisis. We must not just go back to normal but rather seek the opportunity for transformational recovery.

Extreme weather events and estimated financial losses worldwide
Extreme weather events and estimated financial losses worldwide (1990-2016)
Image: Statista

“We recognize that we have a unique opportunity to learn from current events to improve infrastructure resilience going forward. This also means building the resilience and knowledge in terms of preparation, response or recovery, of the humans who are part of every infrastructure system.

“The importance of decision-making during recovery to make sure that our infrastructure systems do adapt and do transform to enhance future resilience, particularly thinking about the even greater crisis that climate change threatens, is very immediate, and very urgent.”

Leaders are being asked to make difficult decisions with the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak. But how can they be sure they are making the right decisions and remain resilient when faced with such challenges? Furthermore, how can leaders form these critical decision-making skills before a crisis or disaster happens?

As the programme’s Resilient Leadership project started, most of the world was already in lockdown. It started with a question: what if we could listen in to senior leaders as they navigate the waters of decision-making during this crisis in real-time?

The Resilient Leadership initiative aims to understand decision-makers’ real-time response to crisis
The Resilient Leadership initiative aims to understand decision-makers’ real-time response to crisis
Image: The Resilience Shift

Barbara Humpton, CEO Siemens USA, says: “We say hindsight is 20/20, but what about our vision in the midst of a crisis? This project is documenting the world’s response to pandemic, week-by-week, from the perspective of diverse leaders. The resulting narrative reveals the true nature of resilience as it takes root and grows.”

Reflective learning through expert listening

Humpton is one of the participants in the Resilient Leadership initiative by The Resilience Shift that aims to understand decision-makers’ real-time response to crisis. It will interview 12 senior leaders from diverse organizations, following their journey through 16 weeks of real-time, reflective learning.

Seven participants are senior executives in large, globally significant corporations: Arup, Lloyd’s Register Group, We are Optima, SAP, Siemens, the World Bank and WSP. Five are the Chief Resilience Officers of major cities in the Global Resilient Cities Network.

Participant, Craig Kesson, Executive Director, Chief Data Officer and Chief Resilience Officer, City of Cape Town, says: “Building resilience requires an active process of reflection; the ability to use lived experience to inform present and future decisions. This learning initiative has allowed for the real-time accumulation of global insights which reveal what is common and different about this shared moment. It is a unique contribution to the living archive of what this pandemic will mean for all of us.”

Emerging insights from the project

At the half-way point of the project, an initial set of emerging insights has highlighted how important the value of reflection is in allowing these leaders to learn. It has also reinforced not only that resilience is grounded in people and their behaviours but highlights our societies’ dependencies on infrastructure systems and the interdependencies between them.

“We are grateful for the project’s participants that, through their time, dedication and willingness to learn in real-time, with us and each other, are contributing to the future resilience and capability of senior decision-makers around the world,” says Seth Schultz, Executive Director, The Resilience Shift.

The initiative has already identified 10 emerging insights into transformative behaviours that can help people to lead in a crisis:

  • There must be trust in a leader’s ability to put safety and wellbeing of people first, and broadly, trust in them as leaders;
  • Leaders need personal and professional resilience. This “battle memory” is built up over time by individuals and teams, but they should also anticipate longer-term fatigue;
  • They must be forward-leaning, capturing the sense of urgency created by a crisis to seize the opportunity of a critical window to shape the future.
  • Leaders are not afraid to let go and delegate to others. The ability to give up control and devolve responsibility by empowering others is a vital skill;
  • They must pay attention to, and act on, early signals of trouble and be willing to make tough decisions without delay. All this while constantly monitoring vital signs such as finances, employee well-being and the condition of essential stakeholders;
  • Leaders recognize that, just as with human health, pre-existing conditions determine the severity of a crisis. Improving underlying conditions in supply chains, infrastructure systems and marginalized communities ahead of time pays handsome dividends when a crisis arrives;
  • Leaders can take advantage of the power of solidarity in a crisis to overcome institutional or structural barriers. Communities and companies can step in where governments can’t;
  • In times of great uncertainty people need their leaders to lead. In particular, they look to them for calmness, a willingness to share information clearly and the honesty to admit if they need to change direction;
  • In a crisis, good leadership embraces the uncertainty and speed of change, developing what is effectively a start-up mentality, being agile and fast moving, flexible and opportunistic;
  • The resilient leader keeps a focus on an organization’s core purpose and stays open to seizing transformational opportunities while managing the day-to-day chaos.

Capturing real-time insights of senior decision-makers

Follow the 12 participants as they complete the second half of the project. Their reflections are captured in weekly blogs, graphics and podcasts as further insights are distilled into the challenges of leading in a crisis.

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