Girish Menon: How to lead in a time of crisis

As leaders we have a responsibility to bring a sense of calm and a semblance of normality to our respective teams in the face of a pandemic

Girish Menon

"Focus on what you can control" is a mantra that seems much more applicable to the current situation than ever before. As the Covid-19 pandemic grinds the world to a halt, there is understandably a sense of anxiety and panic, not just about the immediate threat to our health, relationships, jobs and the economy, but also about the absolute fear of the unknown: how long it will last, how deep its impact will be and what the "new normal" will look like.

As leaders, we have the responsibility to bring a sense of calm to our respective teams and to think beyond our immediate lives, perhaps even to attempt to bring about a semblance of normalcy.

Here are some of my thoughts on how this can be achieved.

Stay mission-focused

Our organisational mission is akin to a lighthouse, serving as a navigational aid. When waves of uncertainty swirl around us, it is the mission that provides a sense of direction and reminds us what the purpose of our organisation is and what we are here to achieve.

At ActionAid UK, we constantly remind ourselves that our mission is to work with women and girls who live in poverty in the global south, and enable them to realise their rights. That is what always inspires us and should continue to do so.

Be true to your culture

Every organisation has its own culture. There is no better time to bring that culture to life than during a crisis. Let your culture enable values and behaviours to be demonstrated clearly in how we manage the crisis: empathy, self-care, inclusion, kindness, trust and respect, all of which are common in the not-for-profit sector. At ActionAid, this is expressed through our feminist principles and behaviours, and there is no better time than now to embrace them fully.

Understand resilience through an intersectional lens

Resilience is key to managing the crisis, but it is different for each individual, given their backgrounds, their beliefs, the socio-economic groups they represent, and so on. It is important to understand how each individual can be supported in being more resilient in view of the unpredictable future.

We have had some discussions internally on issues of mental health, for instance, and are fortunate to have a dedicated team of mental health first-aiders who offer a fantastic resource. We have also been reminding our colleagues of the confidential helpline we operate to support colleagues through these difficult times.

Connect and communicate

With home working becoming the norm for an indefinite period, it is more important than ever to reach out, check in, communicate, reassure and make people feel part of a wider team and organisation.

I am so impressed to see how many of our teams have immediately put in some creative forms of virtual catch-ups to keep in touch and check in. These have been hugely welcome, especially by those who live on their own and feel isolated. I participated in a Friday afternoon virtual drinks session, and it was great to meet some of the family members and pets this way.

Self-awareness and vulnerability

We all have our own lives, and each of us experiences a hinterland of anxieties and concerns. Leaders must look inwards to establish what their deep concerns are, acknowledge them in the spirit of self-awareness and be comfortable in expressing their own vulnerabilities.

I have realised that the current crisis is having an impact on my sleep patterns, and every time I wake up at night, which is often, my mind immediately diverts to whether I am doing the right thing in managing the crisis. I have found immense comfort in being able to share that with colleagues.

We have all been through various crises in our respective roles and organisations, and I am sure there is a lot we can learn from them. But the coronavirus pandemic is at a scale unseen in modern times. It is global, affecting every single organisation across all sectors.

Coronavirus therefore calls for deeper solidarity irrespective of who we are, where we come from, what our beliefs and ideologies are or where we live in the world. It has the potential to redefine global relationships and bring us all together to continue to fight some of the other huge challenges, such as poverty, gender inequality, exclusion and social injustice. And it might just be the moment to come together as one world, one community, to appreciate our diversity, to be more inclusive, tolerant, understanding and unified.

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK

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