War-time Leadership During Covid-19 Crisis

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Dr Sumit Mitra

As cases of the novel coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, the world became a completely different place for us, our families, for the way we work and the way that we conduct ourselves. Since then more than 165,000 people have died from COVID-19, while some 2.38 million infections have been confirmed in at least 185 countries and territories and the number keeps climbing. However, more than 611,000 people have recovered to date.

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The primary focus for governments and businesses is and has been the safety of their people. Countries and world capitals have been put under strict lockdown, bringing a halt to major industrial production. Whilst this focus will continue, the implications for economic growth and corporate profits have led to a sharp sell-off in equity markets across the globe.

The subsequent economic impact is perhaps only the tip of the iceberg. The impact on stock-markets has been brutal so far. The FTSE, Dow Jones and the Nikkei have all seen huge falls since the outbreak began. Investors fear the spread of the coronavirus will destroy economic growth and that government action may not be enough. In response, central banks in many countries, including the United Kingdom, slashed interest rates. That should, in theory, make borrowing cheaper and encourage spending. Industries such as Retail, especially food retail and tourism, have borne the brunt of the impact. Supermarkets and online delivery services have reported a surge in demand as customers stockpile goods. For the tourism and hospitality industries, the reverse has been true and it may have a longer-term impact. For business trips, the new normal of social distancing will result in many travellers developing a profound and lasting fear of shared spaces including hotel lobbies, restaurants or even bars. Whatever happens, it doesn’t matter how we deal with it, this journey will be both a sprint and a marathon.

A sprint because you will need to be agile in your thought process. What took you six months to plan, may have to be implemented in a week. Leaders face this struggle to run their operations and yet continue to implement their business. But, it must be treated as a marathon as well. To deal with the marathon you almost need to re-invent yourself as a leader of your business.

The question is, are you fighting a war with peace-time cabinet? How can a crisis be used to inspire innovation? How do you convey brutal facts and still inspire optimistic actions? How do you think of a plan D?

I am sharing a ten-step guide as to how we, as war time leaders, can now deal with this crisis. I have taken inspiration from a Chinese general called Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. I have tried to blend his thoughts with mine through these ten steps to help you get a feel for leadership during these COVID-19 times.

1. Know the facts

Most importantly, you must educate yourself. This means going beyond just watching the TV news. Choose the information sources that you trust to educate yourself and read into the subject.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”- Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

2. Be a decisive leader

Decisive leaders seek out the appropriate information they need to make good decisions. Decisiveness is the ability to make clear-cut and timely decisions with the appropriate information. During a crisis, decisiveness is key for the effective execution of plans and the achievement of goals. The worst decision is no decision.

Often, people postpone decisions for fear of failing or making a poor choice. Make decisions and continually move forward even when there is a lack of clarity. Balance decisiveness with reflection and critical thinking. Good decisions are almost like a muscle memory. It comes with a mixture of analysis, wisdom, experience, and judgment.

3. Your colleagues are your assets

Ensure that you have clear business protocols or guiding principles in place and fine tune them as necessary. Work-from-home is only the first step. What else needs to happen in your organisation for people to feel safe, engaged, informed, and useful will define you as a leader.

One example which worked for me is my five-minute video to address  colleagues. I talk to them and celebrate success no matter how small. Make them feel physically and psychologically safe. Making people feel safe is one of your most important jobs as a leader. You can also conduct virtual “town-halls.” Finally, have a five second daily pulse survey to feel the pulse of the organisation. Are they able to maintain their work-life balance and mental and physical well-being?

“Treat your men (women) as you would your own beloved sons (daughters). And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

4. Customer at the heart of everything you do

No matter how far removed you may be or how close you are to your customers, feeling the mood of the nation, and therefore the customer, is important for any business. During these difficult times, it’s relatively easy to look inwards and forget customers. Tesco is a fine example of how pop up stores were set up quickly for the government’s emergency response. This is where flexibility and agility come into play but keeping the customer’s needs right at the centre of your mind.

5. Flexibility and adaptability

There must be a sense of recognition that things are changing rapidly. Today’s realities are quite different so be flexible and be willing to make difficult choices. Read up on the macroeconomic implications for your business/industry/sector, so that you can make better decisions. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu talks about theory of adaptability to existing situations is an important aspect of his thought.

“Just as water adapts itself to the conformation of the ground, so in war one must be flexible; one must adapt his tactics to the enemy’s situation”.

6. Think longer term

Sketch out plans that are as detailed as possible for the longer-term (at least through to the end of the third Quarter). Recognise that much will change, but at the same time be extremely focused on your game-plan. Things are changing at an incredible rate. Put together a tactical set of steps for this new way of working.

Think strategically, conduct (and re-conduct) scenario planning—Plans B, C, and D, think about what can be stopped completely for now, what can we do more of and what can be brought forward or pushed out—and be willing to adapt quickly.

In the words of Sun Tzu – “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. ...”

7. Leverage your team

We are all in this together. Bring your teams together to ensure alignment. Engage them in doing scenario-planning. Work with them to differentiate the truly important from the merely urgent—and help them do the same with their teams. Ask them to identify risks and foresee issues. Ask them how they and their families feel, to help ensure everyone is tapping into his or her emotional intelligence to lead and manage in the right way. Give credit where it is due. It’s amazing how people react to a little praise. You do not need to be in the forefront of everything. Your guiding principles are there to help, just make sure you have prepared your team well. This is also about testing your team to see if you’ve hired the right leaders around you.

A lesson from The Art of War - Sun Tzu:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

8. Treat people how they would like to be treated

This is one value of Tesco that I most admire and relate. Nothing drives employee loyalty and engagement more than knowing “my boss cares about me as a human being.” Everyone is an individual. Their issues, concerns and life in general are completely different to another individual. As a leader you cannot paint everyone with the same brush but rather treat them as individuals.

It is this behaviour which will motivate your team to go on this marathon. Engagement at local level, connects, town halls etc are tools to help you on a sprint but to sustain this, we must look at colleagues as being our biggest asset and the bond can only be built through genuine leadership that recognises individuals and understands their needs and wants.

9. Over-index on Communication

You must communicate with credibility. However, there has to be a sense of optimism, too. It’s also OK to say, “I don’t know but let me find out”. With most people now working remotely, set up new ways to keep in touch. Pay attention to your communication style and your tactics, be deliberate, and be as “visible” as you can be. Virtual coffees, 1-2-1 meetings, engagement with senior managers or even “lunch with the frontline colleagues”.

Ask your leadership to do the same. There is nothing worse than a leader who disappears when there is a crisis. No executive has ever been penalised for over-communication. There is, however, a balance.

All leaders should be telling the same story, with confidence, compassion and optimism: how to keep safe, how to work together, and how to ensure that everyone is focused what’s most essential for the business and its customers. For Tesco it is all about feeding nations. An opportunity of a life time.

In the words of Sun Tzu,

"If you communicate effectively, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

10. Manage your own mental health

As a human being you’re stressed like everyone else and probably in ways you may not even know. Stay mentally fit. Physical fitness to me is closely linked with mental fitness. Your family and friends need your attention and leadership as much as your employees and customers do.

Learn new skills. Even leaders don’t know it all. It’s important to keep yourself occupied. Appreciate that not all decisions will be the right ones. It is okay to make mistakes and move on. No point worrying about things that are not in your control. Help others around you who are not as privileged as you are.

According to Sun Tzu,

“If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.”


There is no right or wrong answer. The 10 principles may not be the right ones for you but at least it gives you something to work on. We are all afraid of something that we have never faced before. This requires each of us to act as a leader and treat this crisis as a defining moment for yourself and for your organisation.

Step up and lead accordingly.

COVID-19: Tip of the Iceberg for Tectonic Shifts in Shared Services Delivery?

To understand the impact on global support operations, SSON ran a flash survey on March 10-13, 2020. The results provide a snapshot of the industry’s initial response to the crisis. Download your copy here.