It's not the plan, but the planning: leadership tips from the coronavirus response

Leadership in the current crisis is about recognising changed circumstances, trusting your people and neutralising uncertainty by embracing the reality of it, says The Whitehall & Industry Group chief executive Simon Ancona
Army personnel at a NHS Nightingale hospital Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

By Simon Ancona

04 Aug 2020

If ever there was a time for leadership, it is now.

At WIG we have the benefit and privilege of conversations with well over 200 public, private and not-for-profit organisations, many of whom engage with our leadership programmes. Reflecting on the response to the crisis, all those I have talked to agree that it comes down to motivating others to give their level best in pursuit of a common goal. Good leaders are visionary, innovative, decisive, trustworthy, compassionate, empathetic and motivating. It sounds simple, and they are good words, but delivering them is not instinctively easy.

The four crucial leadership areas for me are:

Recognise where you are and what it means

It is important to understand one is in a crisis before understanding its characteristics: uncertainty, the need for fast decisions with less information and proper analysis with information overload, a greater requirement (but less time) for planning, more costly mistakes, increased stress, unstable goals and variable performance from team members. In a word: chaotic. Armed conflict is an exercise in managing chaos. The military recognises the need for pace in reacting to change in the 'OODA loop'. It stands for observe, orientate, decide and act. It is a constant process with the aim of having a faster cycle than your enemy. A former permanent secretary speaking for WIG highlighted the importance of understanding what is actually going on. The military term would be 'ground truth'. His advice was to 'go look-see', be visible in doing so and don't duck the issues.

Almost all my conversations have alluded to the future with phrases like ‘What now?’, ‘What next?’ and ‘What if?’ Military planning teams are designed to accommodate this, with delineation between those executing the current plan, those formulating the next plan and those looking ahead further still. Constant dialogue is key in aligning present and future.  

Know (and show) thyself

Leading in normal circumstances requires constant attention; in a crisis, even more so. Given that leadership is an exercise in motivation, knowing the state of either leader or those they lead, is the essential start point. It's no accident that WIG's senior leadership programmes include self-reflection – 'knowing thyself'.

There is an old adage – if everyone seems to be in a bad mood, it's not them, it's you. The hissed advice from an army sergeant to a flustered junior officer, "don't run Sir, you'll panic the troops" has a ring of truth. Both calm and panic are equally contagious and will infect a team quickly; a good leader will insulate their people from negative factors (interference, doubt, strain). Clear communication and transparency is critical too. Acknowledging stress and how it manifests in an organisation (and in individual behaviours) is an essential part of mitigating against bad outcomes and building personal and organisational resilience. So too is honesty. Senior public servants say that showing more of oneself helps in building the essential trust teams need.

Keep close to people, but set them free

We are apart, but we are better connected, especially from above. Departments have shared that video conferencing has been a great leveller amongst attendees. Leaders also valued it for consultation and for testing of ideas and solutions. Another happy by-product of lockdown was better delegation. In a military context, this is known as 'mission command' – the intent and the role of the individual are made clear, resources are provided, and individuals are empowered to use initiative to fulfil the mission. This maximises innovation and allows a quicker reaction to changing circumstances – people also love it, and it grows them. The importance of celebrating success has also been a common theme. It is easy when one is focused on the mountain’s summit not to look back down at the progress made. I worked in a US military staff for a while and learnt the call to “play the movie”, meaning review the context of preceding events. 

It's not the plan, but the planning

As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. A more contemporary military axiom is "never fall in love with a plan". The five reasons for failure are cited as: bad plan, good plan badly executed, no plan, too many plans and an act of God (badly predicted). A good plan will accept change, but in crisis and uncertainty, it's not the plan, but what is learned in the planning process that matters. WIG members have said that the planning process never stops. Planning should become a routine, not an end in itself. Plan, wait, change (disappointment, frustration, fatigue) is worse than plan, change assumptions, repeat.

If the conversations with our many members are anything to go by, leadership in the current crisis is about recognising changed circumstances, acknowledging temperament and demeanour, trusting your people and neutralising uncertainty by embracing the reality of it.

Read the most recent articles written by Simon Ancona - Lingo bingo: decoding the language of the boardroom


Coronavirus Leadership
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