Strategic Leadership in Changing Times of COVID-19

“Without a doubt, armed forces must continue to be relevant as tool of CNP even in the COVID-19 scenario and not resort to gimmicks to retain their relevance. The Armed Forces must consistently redefine roles and activities by determining how to best accomplish their purpose.”

Strategic Leadership in Changing Times of COVID-19

The journey of life as we knew it came to a grinding halt on 22 March 2020 with the Janta Curfew followed by Lock Down 1.0 commencing on 24 March 2020. It was that day and today; we have evolved a new lexicon and also a new way of living, the realization that COVID-19 is here to stay and might as well start living with it is not an epiphany but a rude grueling realization.

While Corona Warriors have taken the lead and the armed forces honouring them with a spectacle and a million rolled up eyes, it made one think and also triggered a thought if our strategic leaders were leading change, managing change or leading growth in this new paradigm.

All three prima facie would seem quite similar and I could be accused of playing semantics in a soup of words. If Indian Army wants to emerge stronger and better from this quagmire with meaningful and sustainable change to our systems, it will need to focus on a collaborative approach within the organization.

This is because the problem is not only how to acquire new concepts and skills to operate in a COVID-19 environment, but also how to unlearn things those are no longer serving the organization well. Status quo, you know, that is Latin for the mess we’re in, said Ronald Reagan.

It seems that in the past an organization could experience change within and in the operating environment and then return to a period of relative stability. This provided breathing room for thoughtfully planning and getting ready for the next change.

However, the present metamorphosis in the operating environment of the armed forces is occurring almost continually, and there are certainly no signs that this metastasis will attenuate in the present volatile and ambiguous geo-strategic scenario. All this change runs counter to our need to be comfortable and in a predictable environment.

Our quest for “status quo” pushes us to seek the management of what is rather than seeking leadership for what could be. However, it is very difficult to make changes when an organization is satisfied with the status quo. It is innate inertia, getting it going in any direction will make it easier to accommodate the necessary change to move it in the right direction.

The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper said Mark Twain certainly; it would be difficult to find any thinking person who believes that this change is not a change but a passing shower and we will relapse into our comfort zone sooner than later.

The important issue for leaders in the armed forces would be to cope with the changes that confront them daily as they attempt to keep the organization adaptive, resilient, and viable. The true leader must be able to embrace this change and use it in ways that benefit the growth and sustainability of the organization.

Leaders play a critical role during the organization’s attempt to embrace change and challenge the status quo. During this intervening period between stasis and evolution which we are presently in, the organization is in a flux, which manifests in various levels of confusion, fear, loss of direction, reduced energy, and lack of clarity about direction and expectations.

It can be a period of high emotion, with officers and troops ruing for what is lost, and initially unable to look towards the future with clarity. Turbulent times like this need the leader to focus on two things. First, the feelings and confusion of organization must be acknowledged and validated. Second, the leader must work with led to begin creating a new vision of the altered structures and help them to understand the direction of the future in a collaborative process.

It is important to empathize but avoid focusing on the permeating feelings of despondence in this situation. A strong focus on a new vision may result in the perception that the leader doesn’t value us and the predicament we are in and values the organization alone. An effective leader knows how to incorporate the reality of change into the organization’s attempt to move successfully into the future.

In the face of all this change, leaders need to remind themselves that the human condition is all about being comfortable in a predictable life environment. Unfortunately, change is unpredictable and often uncomfortable. We as individuals and the Indian Army of which we are a part tend to keep doing those things we are familiar with, while at the same time hoping that our situation will improve significantly.

“Far too often, the leaders of an organization may have been thinking for a while about the need for a change, but the present pandemic has taken them by surprise. Indeed, this is an unnerving test of leadership;”
(Graphical Representation)

In response to the present confusion, many do nothing, often afraid of making the wrong choices. Leaders are at their best when they are calling on others to join them as they willingly face the adventure of confronting rapidly changing conditions and not presenting the organization and its human resource with a Hobson’s choice of ‘my way or the highway’.

Change Management and Change Leadership are two options available for us as an organization but we must realize that these two terms are not interchangeable; management is to keep the change under effective control by standard TTPs and the goal of this effort is to minimize the turbulence and mitigate the impact of the change.

Change management is a structured approach for ensuring that changes are thoroughly and smoothly absorbed. Change leadership, on the other hand, concerns the driving forces, visions and processes that lead to the transformation of the organization. Change leadership is concerned with internalizing the change process for the evolution of a better, smarter and more efficient organization.

Change management tends to be more associated; at least, when it works well, with smaller changes rather than a major transformation and COVID-19 is by no stretch of imagination a minor occurrence.  Change leadership is also more about the urgency for getting everyone in the organization to want to make something happen. It is too easy to get comfortable with the status quo and to resist change, a typical ostrich and the sand syndrome.

Frequently, a challenging vision can stimulate movement, especially if the people in the organization are empowered to move forward. However, as good as change leadership can be in getting things moving, it also has the potential to get things a little bit out of control and topple the apple cart rather than upsetting it. It is impossible to ensure that everything happens in an expected or desired way at a time that is wanted.

Leaders and managers tend to have different views of what change means. Managers linked to the status quo would envision change as a threat and of nuisance value. Management usually aims at just maintaining consistency and order. Leaders, on the other hand must look forward to change as an opportunity to grow, to gain an advantage, and to attain excellence. For leaders, COVID-19 must be seen as a change that ushers something new, exciting, and challenging for the organization as a whole and is not aggrandized virtue of self-worth.

Far too often, the leaders of an organization may have been thinking for a while about the need for a particular change, but the present pandemic has taken them by surprise. Indeed, this is an unnerving test of leadership; combine that with the short tenures of many current senior leaders, and it’s quite possible that many of today’s leaders are even more unprepared for such a challenge.

It’s only natural: senior leaders, always under intense pressure may default to looking at damage the corona virus is causing or could cause. There’s good reason to be concerned, especially since the bottom-line toll has already been so large. Subordinates don’t want to know how much the virus is costing; but they would still want to feel they’re in the same boat as their leader.

People need to know that even though the leader is there to lead the organization, he is also a human being—someone that cares for them and understands what they are going through. Very little effort may be made to make the process inclusive; in understanding or agreeing with this need for change, how it would affect each individual personally and professionally, and how it will be implemented.

The more that everyone is involved in looking at the options related to needed change and in suggesting ways to do things differently, the easier it will be to build the case for initiating the change.

The staff in the present case does not have the initial responsibility to drive change in our organization. However, transformative change is not likely to occur if the staff is not on board to embracing this change. According to Ken Blanchard, the best way to initiate, implement, and sustain change is to increase the level of influence and involvement from the people being asked to change.

"If the armed forces hope to become and remain the sharp tip of the arrow, their culture must be “rigorous”. This means that it must always consistently apply exacting standards throughout the organization, top down. An organizational culture that accepts mediocrity cannot attain excellence.”
(Graphical Representation)

Leading from the front doesn’t mean being isolated, however, for many leaders, one of the hardest things to do is to rely on the opinions of staff and the environment. But that’s exactly what they need to do in times of crisis, especially when the cause of the crisis is outside of their area of expertise.

Leaders must listen to the environment; people need to feel that the approach to change will include their strong input and ongoing involvement. As this process unfolds, the change leaders will need to ensure that concerns are brought forth and resolved along the way. Resistance increases the more that people sense that they cannot influence what is happening to them.

Effective leaders need to chaperone people in understanding change and the benefits that would accrue to the organization. Increasingly the leadership’s role is to interpret, communicate, and enable rather to instruct and impose, which inadvertently solicits a ‘digging in the heels’ response.

Leaders will have to be agile, in changing not only strategies and operational design but also their own leadership styles. In fact, it is likely to be the case that different leadership styles will be needed as the year progresses through different stages. Right now, for instance, an affiliative and participative style of leadership, where decisions are made through consensus and based on relationships, may be best.

At this point, leaders should know that they need to communicate with all stakeholders during a crisis. Leaders will have to communicate with alacrity and clearly to be ahead of potential issues rather than having to counter misinformation.

And with a viral outbreak such as this, different layers and silos of the organizations will need to communicate differently—operations and operational logistics will have different concerns than those of Ordnance and Supplies, for instance. Communication by leader should be tailored for each constituency based on their unique concerns but within a pervasive singularity of thought and direction.

Leaders in higher echelons suffer from the Rapunzel in the Stone Tower effect and struggled with engagement and interactions. That task is even tougher now as the coronavirus has employees not operating in their usual domains or, worse, temporarily not working.

The challenges of social distancing and restrictions on large congregations make interaction with the lower rungs more remote and distant. Soliciting feedback about what would be most helpful to them as life returns to normal will ensure that leaders and staff focus on the actions that will have the greatest impact.

There are three keys to effective communication, listen to the troops, act on the feedback they provide and importantly, communicate “We hear you, and here’s what we’ve done based on your feedback.” Best leaders must turn this tragedy that hurts their organizations into a sense of shared purpose and community that betters it in the long term.

Later, assuming the virus runs its course, “here’s what we need to do to make up for lost time” approach may be in order. Leaders must become cheerleaders, encouraging people to “stay the course” and continue to meet the challenges. As long as the virus remains a threat, the focus should be on keeping personnel and their families safe and free from contagion.

Making people feel secure and taken care of will then help leaders get them focused on preserving operations as best as possible as the outbreak spreads. The responsibility for leading change is with the flag rank officers and their staff; they must direct the change in a way that units and subunits can cope with.

American John P. Kotter is a Harvard Business School professor and leading thinker and author on organizational change management. Kotter's highly regarded books Leading Change (1995) and the follow-up The Heart of Change (2002) describe a helpful model for understanding and leading change. Each stage acknowledges a key principle identified by Kotter relating to people's response and approach to change, in which people see, feel and then change.

His eight step change model can be summarized as under:-

  • Inspire resolve; enthuse people to move and to make the desired outcomes real and relevant.
  • Build the team; get the right people in the right place with emotional commitment and balance competence, authority and responsibility. Avoid yes men with sycophancy as their mantra.
  • Create a persuasive vision; get the team to establish a simple vision and strategy; focus on aspects necessary to drive quality and efficiency.
  • Communicate; Involve as many people as possible, talk with people rather than talking to them. De-clutter and exploit technology for you rather than against.
  • Facilitate the process; enable constructive feedback and provide support, make the process feel as organization owned and organization driven rather than a directive from the hierarchy.
  • One Step at a Time; Set aims that are easy to achieve in bite-size chunks. The numbers of initiatives should be manageable. The current stages should be finished before starting new ones.
  • Persevere; Foster and encourage determination and persistence to achieve ongoing change.
  • Make change stick; Reinforce the value of successful change. The desired change should be intertwined into the organization’s culture.

For these reasons, an effective strategy needs to be in sync with how the organization functions and the actions of its leadership. Our leaders must learn the importance of role modeling that “walks the talk” as a requirement for leading change. For today's skeptical social media driven armed force rhetoric without action quickly disintegrates into empty slogans and propaganda.  

All of this discourse about change ultimately involves dealing with the culture of the organization and not its organizational climate. Culture can be defined as the predominating attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns that characterize an organization’s functioning.

Unless the desired change is embedded in the organization’s culture, it is not likely to be sustainable over time. If the desired change runs counter to the existing organizational culture, clearly that culture must be altered to support the new initiative.

If the armed forces hope to become and remain the sharp tip of the arrow, their culture must be “rigorous”. This means that it must consistently apply exacting standards at all times throughout the organization, top down. An organizational culture that accepts mediocrity cannot attain excellence.

Therefore, change in the culture is often required to move from complacence to rigorous performance. Without a doubt, armed forces must continue to be relevant as tool of CNP even in the COVID-19 scenario and not resort to gimmicks to retain their relevance. The Armed Forces must consistently redefine roles and activities by determining how to best accomplish their purpose.

(Graphical Representation)

What leaders need from the led is the ability to commit to a course of action and, at the same time, to stay flexible enough to quickly alter behavior and attitude. As a result, this allows the organization the opportunity to help ensure its future success and contribution to national power.

It is worth noting that during and post COVID-19 scenario, learning how to learn, learning how to innovate, and learning how to change would be key. The notion of “change” is arguably the most powerful because it focuses on results and implies proactive movement forward.

Resilient leaders must start by anticipating what success looks like at the end of the recovery phase; how the Armed Forces will thrive for the long term – then guide their staff to execute an outcome-based set of dashes to get there with agility. Regressive planning will help leaders create more aggressive and creative plans.

Having the leadership team envision a successful end-state is emotionally enabling, freeing it from the constraints of the present. It also discourages incremental thinking, which hampers creativity. Large-scale organizational change usually triggers emotional reactions, including denial, negativity, reluctant choice, tentative acceptance, or resistance to commitment. Leadership can either facilitate this emotional process or ignore it. Clearly, the latter course places the transformation effort at peril.

(Colonel Harsh Vardhan Singh is an alumnus of National Defence Academy was commissioned into the Indian Army in June 1995 and commanded a battalion along Western Theatre. The Officer has had operational experience both in Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorist Operations CI/CT operations in Jammu and Kashmir and on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Eastern Ladakh.

He has done instructional tenures in the Indian Military Academy, Defence services Staff College and served as Chief Instructor at Regimental Centre. The Officer has attended various important courses in foreign countries and has served on a UN Peace Keeping Mission. Col. Harsh is a prolific writer and his articles have been published in various journals.

Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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