Leadership in times of crisis

New horizons call for new approaches to leadership — and that’s exactly what our final #GlobalWomenImpactSeries webinar kōrero inspired.

We had the privilege of being joined by four global leaders on an equally global topic: leadership in the times of crisis. Facilitated by Global Women member Audette Exel AO, we heard from Anna Bligh AC, Ilana Atlas AO and Guy Ryan in an insightful discussion of just what it takes to navigate crises in the best, most equitable way.

With all three women also being members of Chief Executive Women — the Australian equivalent of Global Women — we drew on a rich tapestry of experiences across industries, sectors and nations. While the challenges were unique and varied, one theme shone: the power of drawing on your internal compass to lead.

With such a rich, insightful and inspiring discussion, we’ve recapped a few key pearls of wisdom from the discussion below:

There’s no rule book when you’re dealing with crises.

Leadership is what you see when the rulebook runs out,” says Anna Bligh. In times of crises, there’s very often a clear path of what needs to be done. So when the rulebook runs out, needs to be sidestepped or doesn’t simply exist, we must look inside ourselves. “Good leaders rely on their internal resources,” shares Ilana. “Courage, resilience, and experience — those resources help you act.

To effectively draw on those attributes, it’s important to go into them much more deeply, shares Anna. Things that would normally really matter like—energy, optimism, stamina, resilience—have to be supplemented. Much of thinking beyond the rulebook involves really engaging the inner self, says Anna. She draws on her management of the response to the Queensland floods where she felt like the rulebook was running out: “in my experience, I really had to learn where my reserves were — an extra fuel tank that hasn’t been looked at for 30 years.”

Intuition is also something that comes into play. Anna invites leaders to tap into their experience, sharing that the experiences we go through in life layer us, and prepare us for future decisions — “maybe not consciously”. It’s up to us to work those learnings into our leadership.

“Leadership is what you see when the rulebook runs out” — Anna Bligh AC

The importance of decisiveness

People consume more media, looking for strong, secure answers during crises. Even those who previously mightn’t have paid close attention to the news, those that may be politically apathetic, will be more tuned in during heightened times, shares Ilana. Therefore, “the task of leadership is to inspire people and give them the tools they need to keep themselves safe,” shares Anna,“continually communicating with them” is key to this, no matter the crises.

The key to that is action. “Acting is the marker for the leaders here: action, rather than talk.” shares Ilana, who along with the panellists, championed the importance of decisiveness.

“Acting is the marker for the leaders here: action, rather than talk” — Ilana Atlas AO

So, what exactly needs to be drawn on when making decisions in the face of crises? Ilana shares that calmness, poise, and a considered approach to dealing with trauma is incredibly important. She stresses the importance of looking beyond ourselves too: “Leaders show us that it’s important to look beyond our four walls, our family, even our immediate community to see what’s happening globally. That’s where great leadership has shone lately.” Guy Ryan continues this thought, highlighting the need for empathy — “to absolutely understand the challenges that everybody faces.”

You’re often making the call with suboptimal conditions. You don’t always have time and ability to get expertise. Good leaders make the call and make it clear,” once again showing the importance of tuning into yourself “the confidence to do that comes from something quite visceral,” adds Anna.

Leadership can come from many powerhouses

Who is doing the action is also something our panellists unpacked. Guy Ryan cited that we’ve seen incredible examples of young people stepping up in times of challenge: Student Volunteer Army during the Christchurch earthquakes, the School Strikes for Climate, and Generation Zero who advocated for bolder action on climate change which led to the Government passing the Zero Carbon Act.

When talking about the balance between lived experience and a fresh, perhaps youthful perspective in leadership, our panellists admire that one doesn’t necessarily need the other in order to be effective. “Judgement isn’t really the province of experience,” Ilana reminds us. “Judgement is something that people acquire generally through time, but perhaps just instinctively they have good judgement.”

“Judgement isn’t really the province of experience. [It] is something that people acquire generally through time, but perhaps just instinctively they have good judgement” — Ilana Atlas AO

Another thing needed to keep us empathetic to the changes crises require is a new outlook on structure. We’ve come from top down structures, where the primary purpose is business. “Now, we have the tools, the tech and the challenge to honour and create new models on how we use our resources,” shares Guy Ryan.

Ilana echoes this with changes noticed in the role of boards during Covid-19: boards had to be good overseers during this period. Because management has needed to be completely rigorous in their prioritisation of what’s important, boards have had the opportunity to to think about consequences: what does all this mean, what’s going to change? What are the risks and — more importantly—the opportunities that come out of this profound change?

“Now, we have the tools, the tech and the challenge to create new models on how we use our resources” — Guy Ryan.