COVID-19 crisis: Leading in times of uncertainty

At a time when every organisation is grappling with what this crisis means for them, their work, and their teams, the Lab’s Chief Operating Officer, Rebecca Sumner Smith, considers what it might mean to lead in a time of uncertainty.

No matter how well your new job is going, the final few days of a probation period can be nerve-racking. After six months at the Lab, that’s how mine felt, too. But not for the usual reasons. On the final day of my probation period, with our CEO stranded thousands of miles away at sea, I took the decision to move the team to full home working for an indefinite period due to an unfolding global pandemic.

It’s not quite what I expected when I stepped through the door six months earlier.

In these unprecedented times, some days it is genuinely difficult to think beyond lunchtime. In writing this, I tried to think about what has been most relevant in leading through the COVID-19 crisis so far. Horizon-scanning? Re-planning? Communicating with funders? These are all vital. But I realise what I’ve mostly been thinking about is people and community, how the global crisis has made the interconnectedness and weaknesses of our economic systems more explicit, and how I might help protect and support our world and each other when our physical connections have been severed.

Separate, but connected

My role at the Lab is to nurture the internal elements of the organisation: people, processes, resources. Core to this is our team. We have always worked from home regularly, but thanks to COVID-19 I’ve been struck by a shifting understanding of what ‘home’ means. When faced with potentially months of lockdown and crisis, where we live and where we want and need to be can be very different places. In many organisations – including ours – people have moved significant distances to be with loved ones.  The Lab is London-based, but at the time of writing only one of our core team is still living within the M25. It’s one more dimension of abrupt change we’ve had to contend with at this already fractured moment.

How are we remaining connected? Like others, we’re still learning. Here are a few things I am finding useful:

Accepting this is not simply a shift to virtual working. An article from tbd* this week put this powerfully: 

“What is happening here is not remote work. This is an unprecedented emergency situation impacting the whole world. Remote working is a choice, which a company considers, plans for, recruits for and creates structures for. In the current scenario, however, most companies decided to do home office literally overnight. It will take time for everybody to adjust and you probably won’t, fully, before all this is over. Accept it, take one step at a time, and be as adaptable as you can to your own changing needs and those of your team members.”

Being patient, with others and myself. We will all move through stages of adaptation, and will do so at different speeds. I see my role as helping the team find a new rhythm, moving through the waves of change together.

Human first, task second. We’re experimenting with new structures, like a morning check-in, to help us prioritise what matters. The focus is not on tasks (although of course they feature) but more a chance to connect, ground ourselves, and identify the support we need and can offer for that day. We’re figuring out how to expand this offer to our volunteers.

Being grateful. No one is unaffected by this crisis, yet I’ve seen trustees step up to offer even greater support, funders reaching out with incredible solidarity, and our wider community sharing the brilliant work they are doing in response to this crisis. 

Acknowledging that no individual has the answers; we must work together to find what works and what is sustainable. Hierarchical leadership is not the way to weather this storm.

Leadership through uncertainty

The Lab views leadership as a practice that can be exercised by anyone who is helping their group achieve outcomes for social or systems change. Leaders are not some remote, elite group with authority; rather they are people embedded in the community or group that they are working with. In this time of crisis – a time when we all feel powerless – it is even more important that everyone, collectively, feels empowered and able to lead in whatever way is most appropriate for their needs, and the needs of the community. 

To achieve this means helping people be comfortable with uncertainty, and I feel fortunate that the Lab’s systemic approach means working with uncertainty is a part of the team’s DNA. Our organisation, in ‘normal’ times as in exceptional ones, works for a better world for everyone. A crisis of this scale reminds us that success is not a metric of individual performance but rather something that depends on the achievements and assets of the whole community. 

Six months into my time with the Lab, that’s a helpful lens for the end of my probation. And it’s a prompt for what feels like an important lesson: that leading through a crisis is not something you do, but something you enable.