Leadership, courage, and the power of collective thinking
The former chief of defense of the armed forces of the Netherlands explains the challenges of leading in a crisis and why those who do must have the confidence to act.
As governments around the world take special measures to confront the COVID-19 global health crisis, people are grateful for their actions. In the end, every leader is responsible for his or her own choices, and leaders, at all levels, will have to make tough decisions that have consequences.
What leaders need is courage, including the courage to prioritize. As soldiers say: Those who defend everything in effect defend nothing. If everything is a priority, then nothing becomes a priority.
So I urge our leaders in both government and business to be brave. At times of crisis, it is not always easy to know if being brave and being right are the same thing: The line between bravery and foolishness can be thin and it is often only with hindsight that we know which actions were, in the end, the correct ones. But I still say: Be brave, do something, take action. Understand that afterward, when you are held accountable for what you did, it’s easier to explain why you took action than why you did nothing.
It is important for those of you who are business leaders to remember that you are not alone. Your board, your management team, and your people are there with you. In times like this, you need to use the creativity, knowledge, and experience of all those around you. Involve everyone in your response and, if necessary, ask for external support.
Your people will help you define your priorities and risks, and your financial vulnerabilities. They may help provide financial solutions. Your people will help you to manage this crisis.
As a soldier I know that, when you run into ambush — and the spread of COVID-19 feels like an ambush — your leaders have to take control and command. But they don’t have to be directive all the time. In fact, that style of leadership often doesn’t result in the best decisions or the best solutions.
When there is uncertainty and you lack information — which is true now — use the intellectual power of your company. Soldiers have a phrase for this. It’s called “unity of effort,” and it focuses all of the capabilities of your organization on its objective: to survive.
Let me share an example. During the conflict in Afghanistan, the forces I commanded encountered a problem along the border of our area. There was a Taliban training camp on this border, behind a mountain ridge on the opposite side of the river. In the rainy season, the river grew full and ran very fast. Light vehicles attempting to cross the river just floated away. Our heavy armored vehicles could cross but could not climb the mountain ridge on the other side. And in the rainy season, we couldn’t fly with helicopters and planes.
The Taliban were causing problems from their camp, so we had to do something.
Neither I nor my staff at headquarters in the Hague could come up with a solution. So we convened a field teleconference with the leaders on the ground. They told me that even in the rainy season, it doesn’t rain all the time, and if it is dry at night, we could bring in a transport aircraft with special forces who could then parachute in and tackle the Taliban.
I had forgotten we had this capability, and it seemed like a good option. But then I realized we never leave soldiers behind, and if it started to rain, we wouldn’t be able to send in rescue planes or helicopters, and I couldn’t send vehicles across the swollen river.
“Sir,” my leaders on the ground said, “we thought about that. We will use a tow truck to put the light vehicles on top of the heavy vehicles to cross the river and then unload them on the other side so they can cross the mountain ridge.” We had never put vehicles on top of each other in all the years I’ve been in the Dutch armed forces. But I said, “This is a good idea. Very creative. But can we do this in a safe manner?” And my commander started to smile. “Yes, sir, we can, because we’ve already tried it.”
That’s exactly what any leader wants: All the capacity, all the creativity, all the energy going into delivering the objective. That’s “unity of effort.”
It’s not a problem if you as a leader don’t come up with the solutions. In my experience, showing vulnerability in situations like this, and asking for help from everyone around you, is a strength.
Stay calm and be courageous
Everyone understands we are in a crisis. For a lot of organizations, it is an existential crisis. And it is not surprising that people are worried. But you, as a leader, have to do one thing above all others: Stay calm. You have to take into consideration the concerns and the emotions of those around you, but you cannot let them be the lone influence on your decisions.
Sometimes it seems lonely at the top, but with your people alongside you, have confidence that you are not alone. You don’t have to know everything; you don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to be decisive.
In times of crisis, people focus on short-term solutions. But leaders are responsible for thinking about the broader effects of their actions. Don’t be rash or act on your first ideas: Analyze them thoroughly, and don’t blindly copy what others are doing. You know your organization, your people, and your environment best. Come up with solutions that fit that environment.
Start with the facts, and differentiate between those facts and assumptions or even misinformation. Choose when to use the intellectual power of your organization and when to use external support. Think through the consequences of your decisions and then decide. Explain to your people why you made your choices and then ensure those choices are implemented. And don’t forget, when there is time, evaluate the implementation and then evaluate the decisions. And learn from them.
The message is clear: Have the courage to take actions, but also involve your people. Explain what you are trying to do, dare to prioritize, and dare to delegate. Every part of your organization can contribute. Give your middle-management leaders the room to maneuver so that they can come up with creative solutions. Involve the organizations that represent your staff, such as the works councils we have in the Netherlands.
Sometimes it seems lonely at the top, but with your people alongside you, have confidence that you are not alone. You don’t have to know everything; you don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to be decisive. So take on this responsibility. Stick to your moral compass and the values and ethics of your organization, and take care of your people, because you will need them now more than ever.
- Peter van Uhm, a retired general, was appointed commander of the Royal Netherlands Army in September 2005. Between 2008 and 2012, he was the chief of defense of the Netherlands. He is an advisor to PwC Netherlands.