Crisis Leadership: Be Real, Be Positive,

And Be Ready to ‘Bounce Forward’ By Sara Wildberger


he National Preparedness Leader- ship Initiative (NPLI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

offers training programs and research in crisis leadership. Associate director of the NPLI Eric McNulty is also associate direc- tor of research for the program of health care negotiation and conflict resolution, in- structor at the Chan school, and co-author of several books on leadership as well as case studies of disasters including the Bos- ton Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, and the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. He and the NPLI have been offering im-

mediate crisis leadership training online since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, he gives several practices leaders from many different industries and levels can follow. This is excerpted from a longer conversation.

Q. What are some of the things managers can do for workers going forward in this crisis? A. First, you’ve got to realize everybody's feeling the pain right now and acknowledge that. But the other thing, which can be re- ally helpful and restore some sense of calm or positive energy, is to realize that as bad as things are right now, it's actually a good time to be aspirational. By that I mean: What will it look like if

we are at our absolute best during this? Yes, the conditions are terrible. We wish the virus weren’t a threat. But the way we’re pulling together as a

team, the way we're solving problems, the way that we’ve taken care of our residents— if we can aspire to be at our best when the situation is at its worst, we can really bring people together. That may look like trying some new things we could do that may stick- beyond this period.

Q. Senior living is seeing a lot of people doing several different jobs right now, and some new people coming on board at a tough time. What can make it work better? A. The three psychological drivers of satis- faction at work are competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which means being a good team. My colleague at Harvard Business School has written extensively on this idea of a psychologically safe environment, where people feel free to offer an idea, to ask a question, and perhaps make a simple mistake. In that kind of environment, we actually make fewer mistakes. People con- tribute more ideas; they’re more productive. You want to try and build people up,

gradually help them feel competent. Give them two or three things to learn, not 39 things—the human brain just can’t compre- hend all that. If you give people things they can learn how to do quickly, so they can get some small wins, they feel good about this. And then they'll take on more. It can be difficult because you want to

move really fast—so move fast on the things that are easier to learn and move more slow- ly on the difficult things. And the relationship piece is key. If

people feel like they've got a good team environment, they’ll be much more open to learning, they'll be less fearful, and they will pick up new skills more quickly, without being overwhelmed.

Q. You have a really interesting definition of resilience. Can you talk about that? A. There are a lot of different definitions— the psychological one, of the return of hope; or when you talk to structural en- gineers, they talk about materials and the

Change Agent Profile

Eric McNulty, MA Associate director National Preparedness Leadership Initiative Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

ability to bend without breaking. If you talk to environmental science, you talk about the ability to change form to preserve function. But in our social settings as humans, we actually depend on all three of those. In trying to make this resilience concept

actionable and useful, it occurred to me that we never actually do “bounce back.” The past is never the same as the future.

Clocks don’t go backwards. It’s not going to be the same—that’s true after a hurricane or a wildfire, too. We're going forward, and the world is

going to be different tomorrow than it was today. To the extent that you see that, and that you can go through the adversity with hope and belief in a better future, that's when you really begin to see resilience. That's where leaders can make an im-

pact: by saying, yes, there's a lot of adversi- ty, but we will get through it. If they say: I wouldn't go through this with anybody else, but this team, right here, with this group of residents, we're going to make it through together and help each other. Then you’re looking toward where you go next. Things are never the same as they were before. You’ve got to be looking forward.


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