With the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, stories of the conflict dominate the news. For those living and working in the region, everyday life has ceased, replaced with a horror few can comprehend. For those of us watching from afar, the 24/7 news cycle backed by social media that never rests makes it impossible to look away (not that we should). 

Even employers with no operations in the areas of conflict will be feeling the impact. Many will have staff who are desperately concerned about family, friends and colleagues in the region, or who simply feel overwhelmed by the news, perhaps having to explain what is happening to children. You may feel it is imperative that your organisation shows solidarity with the oppressed.  

The impact of sanctions will bite UK and EU nations, with businesses already suffering surging inflation and disrupted supply chains. Some organisation's, have come under pressure to sell Russian assets and exit the Russian market, and firms will be at increasing risk of cyber attacks. 

For business leaders, bruised by two long years of dealing with the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine represents another destabilising force. But paralysis is not an option.  

What we can learn

Your people expect

Employees and the public are increasingly looking to businesses as a trusted source of information and support. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, as trust in government and media spirals downwards, the expectation for business to play a larger societal role is growing, with people looking to business leaders to do more around issues like climate change, social justice issues and economic inequality. 

Our recent reports on responsible business through crisis explored how leaders and organisations reacted to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. They provide relevant lessons for leaders during this fresh crisis, as well as those inevitably to come.  

The pandemic induced a heightened sense of individual personal vulnerability and risk. The more vulnerable we feel, the more we seek leadership from organisations and individuals. The best leaders used their organisation’s values and purposes and their own moral compass as a north star to guide them through decision-making, often with limited data available. They became more visibly empathetic in their leadership, helped by the ability to beam into each other’s homes – thanks to technology. They embraced two-way communication, learned how to listen hard and intently, became humbler and more self-aware. They stepped up and supported their local communities and placed trust at the centre of their practice.  

This more human and humane leadership style will be critical to supporting people through this current crisis and beyond. Much like at the start of the pandemic, we don’t know how or when this conflict will end. HR and leaders should focus on creating psychologically safe spaces for people to be vulnerable and to address any conflicts and underlying resentments. They need to develop and maintain cultures of trust, and understand work as a community not just a physical workspace. 

Provide flexibility

As happened with COVID-19 when we were all in the same storm but never in the same boat, the impact of the war in Ukraine will be different for different employees and customers. Some may have family in Ukraine. For others the conflict and the sight of the refugees may uncover personal historical scars.  

Just as people’s reactions will be different, so will the solutions. Working at home might reduce fear and anxiety, or be a necessity if their partner is deployed 24/7 on some aspect of the conflict. Others may seek support by more frequent contact through the workplace community. Many organisations stepped up mental health offerings during the pandemic, and this investment will pay off again now. We need large doses of what Joe Garner, CEO at Nationwide, calls 'directive empathy'. 

Employers need to turn up the volume on demonstrating their trustworthiness to counteract rising levels of fear and vulnerability. How? As in times of COVID-19, employers need to continually reassure all their different stakeholders of their ability to manage this crisis. And they need to demonstrate their benevolence to others through taking actions, however 'other' is defined: customer or employee or refugee.  

It's about integrity

Perhaps most importantly, organisations and their leaders need to demonstrate a deep integrity. That means organisations demonstrating that they know the difference between right and wrong. Consumers and employees alike will be watching closely how those with privilege and power respond to this crisis in Ukraine – and they are unlikely to forget.  

In our previous reports we suggested that leaders reframe the coronavirus pandemic as a transition into permanently new ways of working and being, rather than a short-lived incident. It could be said that any large enough crisis, and certainly any geo-political one, presents a permanent transition in how it reshapes our world. Already political and economic decisions by Western governments in response to Russia’s aggression may change rulebooks and business models for years to come.  

Leading through the pandemic meant being able to live with uncertainty, balancing the strategic with the everyday. Similarly, we need leaders right now who 'look further' – further than the boundaries of their organisation and even its broader ecosystem. Leaders who have the humility and wisdom to listen and learn from others. Knowledge of how best to respond to war does not necessarily reside in the senior team – you may find better experience or knowledge at other levels or in other places. The priority is to find those experts. 

Tackling macro issues like war, economic sanctions, geopolitical shifts and climate change provide momentum for change. We can seize the momentum provided by these crises to spur new ways of thinking, working and leading business in a better and more responsible manner. If ever there was a moment for thinking about your legacy for the next generation, it is now. 

Leading through crisis: Tips for leaders

  • Embrace more humane and personal leadership styles, with empathy and compassion at the heart.  
  • Focus on building and maintaining cultures of trust. 
  • Prioritise mental health support and don’t neglect your own.  
  • Get comfortable with uncertainty.  
  • Lead with humility. Be aware of what you don’t know. Value and prioritise learning.  
  • Practice two-way communication visibly, widely and regularly, embrace technology in doing so. 
  • Think ‘directive empathy’. As one CEO puts it: ‘COVID-19 was a distinctly human crisis and therefore you can’t just be directive and turn your empathy off… you had to be both highly empathetic and directive.’ The same is true of conflict and war.  

About the author

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and inaugural Dean of the University of Bristol Business School.

Veronica is mainly known for her research on trust and trustworthy leadership. For the last 30 years, Veronica has worked all over the world to deliver leadership development at the most senior levels in the private, public and third sector. Her latest research, conducted in collaboration with the CIPD, focused on responsible business and leadership through crisis. 

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