At times of anxiety, it is natural to draw inwards, to focus on coping. But when you are leading an organisation, it can be more effective to do the opposite. In our work at Pilotlight, we have seen some extraordinary examples of crisis leadership.
Jamie, CEO at Age UK Wirral, has been on the front foot right from the start of lockdown. The charity is the first point of call for people in need over the age of 50. With Jamie’s ability to encourage staff and volunteers, its work was recognised by the local authority who saw the charity as critical infrastructure for a community at an extraordinary time of need.
Lorraine is founder and CEO of Venus, a women’s charity in Bootle. She took the decision to expand the charity’s work to run something completely new, a hostel for homeless people, again with backing from funders. A women’s organisation running services for men wasn’t a matter of logic or strategy. It simply reflected the charity's values. As Lorraine puts it, “if we can help where no-one else can, we will.”
We have been proud to support both Jamie and Lorraine through the Pilotlight Programme, the latter through the Weston Charity Awards, giving assistance to leaders who have the self-confidence in a crisis to be open to change and to respond to what their users need.
Ben was due to take up the job of CEO of Age UK Enfield, but when lockdown hit, he joined early, working as a volunteer until his contract started. That gave him an insight into the organisation that he simply would not have had solely as a paid executive. It helped him to understand the personal and professional challenges of lockdown for a voluntary organisation that relies on volunteers and employees.
One crisis leadership theory suggests that how organisations perform in the kind of circumstances we have lived through over the last year is down to the quality of their relationships, internally and externally.
For voluntary organisations, where everything depends on people being willing to commit, willing to collaborate, leaders such as Jamie, Lorraine and Ben spread confidence and purpose. How they work is instructive for anyone with an interest in leadership, in the voluntary, private or public sector.
What is your leadership style in a crisis? You can test yourself on the quadrant below.
So, what now? As the mood softens with spring, in a seasonal echo of a yearning for hope and renewal, it is a good time to ask what form of leadership will fit the circumstances ahead.
In the voluntary and social enterprise sector, the crisis has played out differently, depending often on the sector involved and the business model used. A helpful way into this is the excellent voluntary sector barometer compiled by academics including Professor Daniel King, Nottingham Trent University – you can explore the data in different ways online.
What may be a universal is that social sector leaders will need their own personal renewal, to recharge their batteries but the demands on them will not fade away. What they have run as styles of leadership – and governance – over the last twelve months, in a crisis context, may not be right for a period of rebuilding.
With a renewal of volunteering, a digital upskilling across the population and the learning around WhatsApp and new tools for community action, completely new models of voluntary action are opening up. Remember, the data from the lockdown even from early on is that at least 60% of people have helped others in their community, while 47% have received help from others. It is instinctive to return to how things were done before; but leaders will want to know what they want to take forward from the crisis, what has value for the future.
At Pilotlight, our work focuses on bringing leaders together from different worlds, for each to learn from the other and for each to be more effective. Drawing on the potential that we have seen, we have been vocal in calling for more inclusive forms of leadership – and empathy - across society and the economy as we emerge from lockdown.
This is an urgent agenda. The aftermath of the crisis will last far longer than the visible stretch of the lockdowns. The decade ahead will likely be hard. We have a stretched and stressed society with serious ongoing needs and some, perhaps many of these needs will be met by the UK’s extraordinary charities, co-operatives and social enterprise. There will be a need, an imperative for the voluntary sector to be at its very best.
How has the crisis been for you?
And can you draw on this to be part of a movement yourself for effective and inclusive leadership when the crisis passes?