The importance of reflective, strategic leadership in an ongoing crisis

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  • Published Date: 02 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a multi-pronged crisis that is stretching public sector organisations, highlighting their importance and revealing their weaknesses.

Leaders have been asked to make critical decisions in a fast-changing, uncertain environment while developing new collaborations and adjusting to different ways of working. Many have struggled to adapt and find a balance between the immediate crisis response and the long-term strategic thinking that can find opportunities for renewal and innovation.

For over a decade ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL) program has given participants a unique focus on reflection and strategic thinking, and learning how to integrate these habits into their leadership.

In 2020 ANZSOG is offering a new version of TSL – Towards Strategic Leadership: In a Time of Prolonged Crisis (TSL - ITPC) – tailored to the times and delivered entirely online. TSL - ITPC maintains an emphasis on personal reflection but with a focus on how leaders can respond effectively to the current prolonged crisis environment they are working in.

TSL has been facilitated for over a decade by popular co-directors Professor Paul 't Hart (Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University and Associate Dean, Netherlands School of Public Administration) and Robbie Macpherson (Managing Director, Adaptable Leadership and Principal of Reos Partners).

Professor ‘t Hart brings 35 years of research, consulting and training on crisis leadership throughout the world to the program. Mr Macpherson has been training and coaching corporate, community sector and public sector executives in Australia and New Zealand for over two decades.

The pair say that, now more than ever, leaders need the ability to be reflective and to think beyond the demands of the current crisis.

Mr Macpherson said that leaders needed to be aware that they were at risk of becoming stuck in a reactive crisis mode and take the time to build good leadership practice.

“We are in a point where we are facing multiple challenges – health, mental health, economic. In that environment, how do we not get stuck in that reactive crisis mode, and how do we find spaces and ways to stop, reflect and do the sense-making and diagnostic work?” he said.

“Our instinct is to say we are too busy, but we actually need to step back and reflect more than ever. It’s not self-indulgent it’s essential.”

He said some organisations were rising to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and were able to ‘innovate in real time’ in response.

“The Australian Bureau of Statistics is an example. They recognised that their work was important because government and society would need good quality information during the pandemic, and they have been able to ask themselves what they needed to stop doing and where they needed to innovate.

“Their staff feel that they have been given permission to do things differently.”

Crises can be catalysts for major change

Professor ‘t Hart said that ongoing crises could change rapidly and often became critical junctures for major political, policy or institutional change. This made it even more important for public sector leaders to adopt a more strategic perspective.

“As we are now seeing so dramatically with COVID-19, a major crisis tends to have twists and turns in the nature and levels of threat and disruption it entails, and the compounded and prolonged uncertainty it elicits both among policymakers and in the community. There will be major swings in public moods, attitudes and behaviours, including towards the authorities and agencies involved,” he said.

“Crises that began as 'natural disasters' or 'operational incidents' can escalate into political and institutional crises about the effectiveness and legitimacy of the decisions, policies, actions of governments and agencies.

“When this happens, crises become critical junctures in which momentum for major policy, political and institutional change can develop. Even relatively short and sharp crises can still cast long shadows on the communities and sectors affected through processes of inquiry and accountability.

“This means that even - or perhaps we should say particularly - in a crisis, it is important for public service leaders to maintain a strategic perspective, looking beyond the on the ground, day-to-day events.

“They need to adopt a systemic view, consider a range of scenarios and think about the political dynamics, so they can spot and exploit opportunities in what might seem to be oceans of trouble.”

He said that the key to doing this was to avoid getting consumed in the mechanics of the immediate crisis response.

“You need to have the confidence to delegate or share the responsibility for doing so, so as to free up time and head space for adopting that pivotal bigger picture and longer time horizon, and for seeking out counterparts and stakeholders to have the strategic conversations that are needing to be had,” he said.

Keeping teams healthy, connected and focused

Mr Macpherson said that many organisations were being required to collaborate in new ways at a time when their working environment was physically fragmented.

“These issues would have been big enough if we were all still online – but the physical fragmentation adds another level of difficulty. Organisations have lost a lot of their informal data points and informal contact.

“How do we make sure that we can create spaces that are safe and robust enough for people to engage with the big challenges?

“We have to put more effort into maintaining physical and relational connection with each other. Leaders need to maintain the relational nature of things and make sure that wellbeing is taken care of.”

Professor ‘t Hart said that managers needed to step back and do a health check on their own teams and systems.

“Ask how they are coping with the pressure, what might be needed to support their resilience, and check they are not getting locked into mindsets and practices that no longer reflect the evolving nature of the crisis?”

TSL-ITPC will build on the format of the original TSL and help public sector leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in volatile and uncertain times: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect, collaborate, lead and learn continuously.

It will create an inspiring environment that allows for learning that would not take place in either a day-to-day work context or a conventional classroom.

Participants are an integral part of this, and TSL-ITPC will bring together a group of peers who share a common language and commitment to public service and harness their knowledge and expertise to create a shared learning environment.

Participants will leave the program with a defined sense of purpose, a stronger sense of self and the ability to recognise and manage urgent and important tasks within their organisation and the public sector more broadly.

The TSL-ITPC program will be delivered online from October 21 - December 17, 2020. TSL-ITPC is held over 2 full day sessions and 6 x 3-hour sessions over 8 weeks, with about 6 hours of offline small group peer reflection work.

Find more information about TSL here. Professor ‘t Hart was also the lead author of ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series which distilled the best contemporary academic thinking on crisis management in the public sector