How to lead in a crisis

Empathy, care and communication define what it means to be a good leader during a crisis.
How to lead in a crisis Claire Spencer, CEO, Arts Centre Melbourne as the venue announced its closure in March 2020. Photo by Mark Gambino.

Brooke Boland

Monday 6 April, 2020

It’s strange to think that only three short weeks ago, many arts organisations, festivals and institutions were open and running normally. So much has happened since then.

And at the front of it all are the CEOs and Directors. In other words, the people leading us through this crisis, who are responsible for many employees’ livelihoods, as well as the future of their own organisations. Good arts leadership has never been more important.

‘Lives have been turned upside down – nothing is the same as it was three weeks ago,’ said Arts Centre Melbourne CEO Claire Spencer AM.

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‘I think all of us crave leadership at some level in our personal and professional lives – whether that be from our politicians or leaders in the workplace. It creates definition around our community, our team, our social and professional tribes. People connect to each other more easily under good leadership,’ she continued.

‘Today that is more important than ever. People are fearful about what COVID-19 means and the impact that it is having – and they are looking to their leaders for information, for direction and care.’

For Spencer, and many others, the arrival of COVID-19 necessitated a quick response but it is also having a long-term impact.  

So what does it take to lead during a crisis? How does the current health emergency in Australia change the way we define leadership and what we need it to achieve?  

Don’t respond out of fear

In his white paper, 5 Key Strategies Leaders Must Not Ignore When Faced With Challenging Times, Daniel Murray from Empathic Consulting writes:

 Your business is at risk of being a fatality of fear unless you manage well. A crisis like this is a challenging time, but it is not one for panic. Crisis is derived from the Greek word krinein meaning to separate, decide or judge. A crisis is a time for decisions to be made. It is a time for choice, strategy and leadership,' said Murray, who last week facilitated one of Australia Council for the Arts' Creative Connections webinars.

‘Rather than be stopped by fear, leaders need to respond to a crisis by making clear choices,’ he explained.

Making clear and quick decisions are necessary, but how we communicate them and how leaders make their employees feel more secure is also critical. 

Leaders don’t need to have all the answers

Kate Torney, CEO, State Library of Victoria, said leadership should be characterised by empathy, transparency, and a ‘deep sense of vulnerability’.

‘In this context where there's so much uncertainty, I think that sense of being really open about what we don't know [is important]. How we're working through the uncertainty and that sense of needing to do that together. That's what I respect in leadership, particularly at this time,’ said Torney.

During a crisis the often hierarchical decision-making process that already exists can give way to better teamwork. This has been Torney’s experience, which she describes as ‘a period of real collaboration’.

‘It's really important not to pretend that you have all the answers; to work through this with your team,’ she explained.

Read: Top 3 tips for emerging arts managers

Closure and social distancing rules have also thrown out the nine-to-five rules of office routines, which requires a shift from time-framing to an outcome driven approach to work.

‘It's not about being there from nine to five. It's about what do I need to achieve today? When can I achieve this with all the other things that I'm juggling in my home, my personal life and the people that I'm supporting?’ said Torney.

This is a big change to remote working and digital collaboration, and one that requires leaders to be upfront with their employees about what outcomes need to be achieved, as well as ensuring that their mental health is supported throughout the transition.

Adaptation met with care

We’re all talking about the need to adapt, which can make many people feel uneasy. That’s not necessarily because we fear change but because most of us like to be in control of our lives. That’s why, when it comes to leading her own team, Spencer emphasises care alongside adaptability.

‘This period will redefine leadership – integrity, agility, tenacity, communication, courage and care. That’s what I am looking for from my leaders – and this is the kind of leadership that I am trying to provide to my team,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘I am asking my team to adapt, to make changes in the way that they work, to not remain attached to the usual way of doing things. This once-in-a-lifetime challenge requires a unique way of tackling it. We must work differently – both physically and emotionally – and I have asked my team members to adapt, recognising that this is not a normal operating environment.’

Mental health has always been a priority at Art Centre Melbourne, which is why the organisation launched the Arts Wellbeing Collective in February 2017.

‘For people who work in the creative industries, so much of our identity and self-worth is tied up with what we do for a living. With professions effectively put on hold for now – it’s really tough for people,’ Spencer said.

‘And it is not a time to turn inwards either. We must stay connected in this time of physical isolation – connected to our audiences and our teams. We will need them more than ever when this period ends,’ she added. 

THIS IS BIGGER THAN ONE ORGANISATION

The arts sector is currently living through a whole-of-industry crisis that doesn’t just affect a few organisations but extends into every corner of our diverse ecology.

‘We need to be supportive across the sector – not just focusing on ourselves or our own organisations but also what we can do, particularly as a larger organisation, to support the sector more broadly,’ said Spencer.

Arts Centre Melbourne has made a number of HR resources available including Working from Home: Guidelines for Team Members, as well as the Mental Wellness guide.

Communication that includes listening

The cornerstone of good leadership is communication. Christina Ryan, CEO and Founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, said communicating your vision will help bring everyone along for the ride.

‘When people understand where leaders want to take them, they will more readily jump on board and help them get there. Once again, this requires a broad view that brings the whole community along, not just those who have the regular ear of the leaders,’ Ryan said.

This doesn’t just mean speaking to your team and communities, but actively listening to what they are telling you.

‘Leaders need to be able to demonstrate an understanding and empathy for their communities. They may not have lived it, but they must have at least seen it and recognised the challenges faced by different groups within the community. When people feel listened to, or even understood, they are more willing to believe a decision included consideration of them,’ said Ryan.

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW. She has a PhD in literature from the University of NSW. You can find her on Instagram @southcoastwriter.