Learn five fundamental qualities of resilient leadership that can help blunt the crisis’s impact—and enable your organization to emerge stronger.

Deloitte Insights

The rapid global spread of Covid-19 has quickly eclipsed other recent epidemics in both size and scope. In addition to the deadly human toll and the disruption to millions of people’s lives, the economic damage is already significant and far-reaching.

In the face of certain challenges and a still-uncertain set of risks, business leaders are rightly concerned about how their companies will be affected and what they have to do next. In the heat of the moment, there are a number of lessons from history that can be applied now. We have pooled the insights of Deloitte leaders in affected areas around the world to provide practical insights for chief executives and their leadership teams in taking appropriate action.

We recognize that companies are in different phases of dealing with the outbreak, and therefore the impacts vary by geography and sector. But regardless of the extent of the virus’s impact on an organization, we believe there are five fundamental qualities of resilient leadership that distinguish successful CEOs as they guide their enterprises through the Covid-19 crisis:

  1. Design from the heart … and the head. In crisis, the hardest things can be the softest things. Resilient leaders are genuinely, sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems. Yet resilient leaders must simultaneously take a hard, rational line to protect financial performance from the invariable softness that accompanies such disruptions.
  2. Put the mission first. Resilient leaders are skilled at triage, able to stabilize their organizations to meet the crisis at hand while finding opportunities amid difficult constraints.
  3. Aim for speed over elegance. Resilient leaders take decisive action—with courage— based on imperfect information, knowing that expediency is essential.
  4. Own the narrative. Resilient leaders seize the narrative at the outset, being transparent about current realities—including what they don’t know—while also painting a compelling picture of the future that inspires others to persevere.
  5. Embrace the long view. Resilient leaders stay focused on the horizon, anticipating the new business models that are likely to emerge and sparking the innovations that will define tomorrow.

We believe that a typical crisis plays out over three time frames: respond, in which a company deals with the present situation and manages continuity; recover, during which a company learns and emerges stronger; and thrive, where the company prepares for and shapes the “next normal.” CEOs have the substantial and added responsibility to nimbly consider all three time frames concurrently and allocate resources accordingly.

Within the framework of these broad imperatives, resilient leaders can take specific tactical steps to elevate these qualities during the current crisis, blunting its impact and helping their organizations emerge stronger. With the right approach, this crisis can become an opportunity to move forward and create even more value and positive societal impact, rather than just bounce back to the status quo.

Design from the heart… and the head

An essential focus in a crisis is to recognize the impact the uncertainty is having on the people that drive the organization. At such times, emotional intelligence is critical. In everything they do during a crisis, resilient leaders express empathy and compassion for the human side of the upheaval—for example, acknowledging how radically their employees’ personal priorities have shifted away from work to being concerned about family health, accommodating extended school closures, and absorbing the human angst of life-threatening uncertainty. Resilient leaders also encourage their people to adopt a calm and methodical approach to whatever happens next.

The first priority should be safeguarding workers, ensuring their immediate health and safety, followed by their economic well-being. A survey of human capital policies and practices in China at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, conducted by Deloitte China in January 2020, revealed the following steps companies and not-for-profit organizations were considering in response: • Ninety percent said that it was an urgent requirement to provide their employees with remote and flexible work options.

Companies in industries facing the biggest constraints on providing flexible and remote working options—such as energy, resources, and industrials—were focusing on providing stronger physical protection in the form of cleaner and safer work environments and personal protective equipment. • More than half of government and public service entities were focusing on addressing employees’ psychological stress.3 Designing for the customer’s heart starts with understanding how that heart may have changed dramatically from what you perceived before. Consider that in crisis, customers often revert down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to basic desires such as safety, security, and health. How does the nature and tone of your customer communications and the sensitivity of your customer experience need to shift in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis? Customers relish the same kindness and grace toward them that you show your workers—they are struggling through the crisis, too, and expect empathy. Simple things can be big things. UberEats is asking customers if they want food left at the door rather than passed by hand. Many airlines have emailed customers to describe their enhanced plane decontamination efforts. Some restaurants have encouraged their wait staff to visibly use hand sanitizer to assuage patron concerns.