CoronavirusLeadership in a crisis: Empathy is key

Leadership in a crisis: Empathy is key

The coronavirus crisis has had an unprecedented impact on the economy and on daily life across the world. The impact on leadership has been no different.

Leaders have been forced to adapt to working from home, making difficult decisions on a daily basis without the hum of an office, and guiding people through the stress of lockdown with only video calls to keep in touch.

“Recent events have highlighted how good leadership is even more important,” according to Illaria Evans, head of group external financial reporting at Tesco. “In such times, communication comes first and foremost, but something else I think is quite important is empathy and really understanding your team, being close to your team,” she added.

Evans was speaking on a panel at the CFO Virtual Agenda, where she was joined by Malcom Finn, head of group reporting at Vodafone; Christopher Corner, head of finance, banking and services at M&S; and Iain Wright, director for business and industrial strategy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW).

Finn agreed with Evans, adding that the pandemic represented a particularly strange challenge for finance leaders.

“I think as finance leaders we may over-attend to the visible, but the demands on leaders are often unconscious,” he said. “We’re all focusing on action – short term safety, stability, business continuity, but I think that was the immediate impact [of the crisis], but then you start to work on empathy and the more human element of leadership.”

“Leadership is hard. It’s about getting the best out of people, and thriving in complexity and uncertainty. You have to be emotionally present, even if you’re physically separate. So, I think leaders need to be open to their feelings.”

For leaders, that empathy is crucial, Finn added. The pandemic has been a crisis not only of the “external world” – the economy, business and working from home, but of the “inner world” – our emotions and experiences, he said.

“A lot of us have felt anxiety, our own anxiety and our team’s anxiety where the sources of it are vague and complex. We may have experienced loss, loss of control, loss of routine, loss of capacity. Those of us at home as parents, we lose capacity. And I’m sure we’re all touched by the consequences of the virus in some way.”

“Leadership has now moved to a more moral leadership, with more of a focus on the people and being empathetic as well. We also have to be realistic, so any messages and communications have to be anchored in reality,” Finn added.

Corner added that it was more important than ever for leaders to make time for one on one conversations with members of their team as it helps leaders gain insight and information they wouldn’t otherwise get, and keep rapport and morale high.

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