We need True Leadership During the Pandemic by Hong Wai Onn

Leadership is just not about the title or power; Leaders need to be bold, brave, daring, open, vulnerable, and sensitive, in order to lead wisely. However, the true test of effective leadership in an organisation is not how they perform in good times, but more in times of crisis, such as the Coronavirus outbreak; which has left many of us feeling frightened and uncertain.

Many people have experienced frustration and stress during the pandemic and many businesses have struggled to stay afloat in these challenging times. Therefore, leaders need to stand up and do the right things for both their staff and the business. This leads to the question – what does it take to be a good leader during a crisis?

Not a normal work from home situation

According to a survey taken before the pandemic, 98% of people would like to have had the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. Working remotely has a host of advantages; for example, better work/life balance and less commuting stress, to name but a few.

While the transition from office working to remote working was easy for many companies, this change was not always as perfect as it seemed. Children could no longer attend school as childcare centres were still under lockdown. People had to juggle their schedules to make it work. Many wanted to return to the office amid an increasing number of Covid-19 cases; despite the encouragement of companies to work from home to curb the spread of the virus. So, what should leaders do to help ease people’s anxieties?

Unnecessary peer pressure

When the government lifted the lockdown and opened (most) business sectors, some people were ready to return to work. However, some were uncomfortable as they were not fully vaccinated. They felt insecure due to Covid-19; particularly with the new variant and how easily it spread. This concern was justified; but in turn, created unnecessary peer pressure that targeted poorer employees towards those who were unwilling to return to work.

Moreover, the situation could become worse, when targeted areas were placed under an enhanced movement control order to stop the spread of Covid-19 to surrounding communities. This meant that not all employees were able to return to the office. Those who were able to return to work were under the impression that they had to undertake additional tasks to compensate for their absent colleagues. So, could leaders be bold, look at business criticality, and make a stand to stop people from returning to work until everyone was vaccinated? Or, what should leaders do to reassure people that their return to the office will not be exposed to unnecessary risks associated with Coronavirus?

Don’t hide behind the CRT

Many organisations established a Covid-19 Response Team (CRT) to handle all preventive and response measures in any eventuality. These teams were also responsible for communicating changes to the rest of the organisation. A CRT should typically encompass people from throughout an organisation, such as top executives, occupational and health, admin and human resources. When it comes to decision-making, a CRT should make collective decisions. However, in some cases, leaders need to stand up and make bold decisions – leaders cannot be silent and hide behind CRTs in the face of the pandemic. Knowing when and how to delegate is a leadership trait. However, they should also understand that there are decisions that cannot be delegated. For example, people with feelings of loneliness when working from home might approach the CRT to re-open the office; but I believe leaders need to be firm on teleworking; especially when the pandemic is not completely under control. Some people may claim that their physical presence in the office is crucial for business, but leaders need to assess the real needs of the operation i.e., would it cause the loss of potential business or just delay a deal from closing.

Turning risk to opportunity

Many leading companies put a lot of emphasise on wellbeing. However, well-being is not just a slogan – it is a way of life. Therefore, leaders should walk the walk and talk the talk, starting with small things, like regularly checking in with employees, moving on to supporting their staff in times of stress. Leaders should stand up for their staff in cases of delayed (due to the pandemic) business related deals. In fact, leaders should capitalise upon this opportunity to demonstrate their organisation’s values of care, empathy, personal touch and personal safety. This will display a positive brand image in front of key stakeholders, such as employees, business partners and investors. After all, everyone likes to work with an organisation that prioritises their employees’ health and safety.

In summary, true leadership is needed in times of uncertainty; especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. For leaders to instil trust in their people, they must take bold, brave and daring appropriate actions. Running a successful business is important; but so is protecting people and playing a full role in supporting the wider community.

Hong Wai Onn

Hong Wai Onn is a chemical engineer. He has over 15 years of experience covering a very wide spectrum of responsibilities, including production, engineering, project management, applied research, process safety and leadership roles.

Hong is an award-winning author of the book “A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry”, in which he discovers the opportunities chemical engineers have in the palm oil milling industry. He is also a public speaker, where he shares his passion on how chemical engineers can contribute to a sustainable future.

Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

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