Using Leadership Narrative to Transform During the COVID-19 Crisis

How the stories that leaders tell and their actions can impact organizational outcomes in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Rick Lash
March 19, 2020

According to a very recent HBR study led by BCG, just 8 weeks after the worst part of the COVID-19 to hit mainland China, the country is already experiencing a rapid recovery. China has seen significant increases in traffic congestion (a sign that goods are on the move), coal consumption and real estate transactions are on the rise. Most importantly, the recovery is happening much faster than expected.

How did China do it? According to the report’s authors, several key lessons emerge that give us clues as to what leaders can be doing now to drive transformation even in what feels like the darkest hours of the crisis. Among those that stand out are practices that emphasize looking ahead and redirecting efforts daily, proactively creating clarity and security for employees, looking for opportunities in adversity, rapidly innovating around new emerging needs and consumer behaviours. The message for leaders in North America?  Now is not the time to contract, withdraw and focus solely on risk mitigation. Now is the time to prepare for the recovery because it will come and much sooner than expected. The COVID-19 crisis, as challenging as it is, presents a unique opportunity for leaders to drive transformation and mobilize others. 

Although this is still early days, most certainly a critical factor in driving successful practices in the China recovery is the narrative leaders communicated about what was happening, what could be expected and what needed to get done. 

An opportunity to create a better narrative

There is no doubt that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we see the world can be immensely powerful in guiding our actions and how we influence others. It is a critical and unrecognized factor in how leaders can drive organizational transformation. In times of crisis, the narratives leaders tell about what is happening, why it is happening and what may happen has a huge impact on people’s motivation and behaviour.

In times of crisis, the narratives leaders tell about what is happening, why it is happening and what may happen has a huge impact on people’s motivation and behaviour.

Tell your story, live your story

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner notes that leaders influence and transform in two key ways – through the stories they tell, and how they embody those stories through their actions. In his book, Leading Minds, Gardner shares how Winston Churchill told the powerful story about Britain standing alone against Nazi Germany while at the same time embodying the values of resilience and defiance through his actions during the battle of Britain. Through his narrative and his actions, Churchill shifted the narrative of an entire nation from hopelessness and despair to one of defiance and action.

We all rise together

Leaders can use the power of narrative to engage and mobilize others during the current crisis. But first, leaders need to be crystal clear on their own leadership narrative and be prepared to live it through personal action. The challenge in the current crisis is that leaders are battling a dominant narrative already out there, reinforced through 24-hour news, popular media and social networks – that we live in an age of threat and insecurity. Fear of the apocalypse sells.

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed shut down most of the world and is threatening to precipitate a global financial crisis that may dwarf that of 2008. But the current crisis is but one of many – climate change, terrorism, the global refugee crisis and the threat of nuclear war – to name jut a few that capture the headlines every day that all speak to our primal concern that our way of life is threatened, driving a culture of fear and anxiety and a foreboding of what is to come. Pushing against that narrative is tough.

Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods, recently shared in a CBC interview that we must remember that people still want to go to restaurants, they still want to travel, they still want to shop and all of those things will continue once the crisis is past. Cue China.

The lesson? Be sure your own leadership narrative isn’t mirroring that same sense of impending catastrophe and that your actions in words and behaviour are not reinforcing consciously or unconsciously that story. Leaders need to deliberately replace the current apocalyptic narrative with one that emphasises the collective power of the community to overcome adversity – one that is more accurate, inspiring and ultimately transformative.

Leaders need to deliberately replace the current apocalyptic narrative with one that emphasises the collective power of the community to overcome adversity – one that is more accurate, inspiring and ultimately transformative.

Shaping a new leadership narrative

There are powerful tools leaders can use to reshape narrative so that even in the darkest hour, they can provide a sense of hope and, most importantly, engage others to take action so that they too can once again be the heroes in their own life story, even in a time of crisis and uncertainty.

Starting over

One powerful example of transformative life change through narrative is the work currently being done through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas that seeks to provide inmates with critical business and life skills to ensure they have the right tools as they transition back into society. Scott Spreier, a consultant with the program, has developed an impactful approach by helping participants craft a new life story – from one of repeated failure and hopelessness, to one of engagement and positive action.  And it is having a significant and lasting impact. Many graduates have gone on to build successful businesses once they were released from prison. And they credit their success to the new leadership narratives they crafted with the help of Scott and his colleagues.

Inspiring others

In the 1950’s, a popular radio show called This I Believe aired life essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jackie Robinson as well as everyday workers, students and parents. They shared their deeply held values and beliefs that guided their day-to-day actions and philosophy, and it brought great comfort to a wide audience grappling the crises of their day – the Cold War, racial tensions and disparity. Recently resurrected as a podcast and website, This I Believe provides guidance from people from all walks of life on how to craft a short essay on their narrative, encouraging people to write about moments when their core beliefs were formed, tested or significantly changed. The process can be challenging, but deeply transformative.

Be your own biographer

Leadership narrative is a critical tool to drive transformation during times of crisis and prepare organizations for the changes that are coming. Every leader needs the skills to become a more intentional author of their own narrative to engage and mobilize others and prepare for the rapid changes that will come faster than many will be prepared for. Using many of these principles, Verity has worked with leaders to make profound changes in how they see themselves, building new narratives and helping them embody through action the behaviours needed to propel themselves and their organizations through transformative change.

Taking Action

  1. Articulate a recovery (not scarcity) narrative. The China example suggests that the best performing companies who had excess capacity recovered the quickest. If you’re healthy going into a pandemic, you have a better chance of survival if you get sick. Hospitals with more beds and ventilators will survive the crisis better than those that have fewer. Look for examples that showcase the organization’s strengths and surpluses and what actions are being taken now to prepare for the recovery.
  2. Select your own personal stories of hard changes and living through a crisis. Put a spotlight on them and tell them to others at every opportunity. Write them down. And stop telling those personal stories that drive a narrative of future foreboding, fear and anxiety.
  3. Adopt a growth mindset. Be prepared to listen to different perspectives, especially those that you may not like. Show others you are open to listening and, most importantly, your willingness to let go and shift your values and beliefs when needed. Read Mindset by Carol Dweck and Limitless Mind by Jo Boaler.
  4. Challenge non-resilient narratives in others. Crisis drives distortions in how others understand themselves and the world. Look for signs of tunnel vision, magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive, and overgeneralizing. Be willing to challenge others with facts, logic and your deeply-held values and beliefs.
  5. Use the crisis to expand your social network and build new relationships. Other people can play a powerful role in shaping your leadership narrative. Forge new relationships with other leaders you deeply admire. Ask them to share their own stories that formed their beliefs about themselves and how they lead.

If your organization’s leaders are struggling to find their narrative in this tough time, contact us. We are here to help.

Rick is a Senior Associate at Verity International. With over 30 years of experience working with clients across Canada and internationally, Rick has helped implement leadership and talent development solutions to accelerate learning and improve performance at the individual, team and corporate levels. Recognized and valued for his deep expertise, thoughtfulness and engaging approach, Rick has served as a trusted advisor working with leaders and their teams to build practical talent management solutions.

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