Strategy & LeadershipWhat makes great leadership in times of crisis?

What makes great leadership in times of crisis?

Great leadership is never more vital than in a time of unprecedented crisis. Sir Clive Woodward OBE, Founder, Hive Learning and former England rugby coach, reveals the secrets of effective leadership in challenging times.

The spread of COVID-19 is posing a major threat to the global economy, and in turn, many organizations will feel the impact of this. In times like these, leadership is one of the most important weapons in the company arsenal.

Sir Clive Woodward OBE, Founder, Hive Learning and former England rugby coach – leading the team to victory in 2003 – takes us through his step-by-step guide to effective leadership in these difficult times, examining why inspiring and empowering your workforce is crucial in weathering the storm and maintaining profitability.


We are operating in a highly uncertain period. The challenges we’re facing today are unprecedented and we find ourselves in scenarios that we could never have predicted.

Leaders play a crucial role in uncertain times — and how they behave in this period could be the thing that makes or breaks your company.  But embedding new skills, behaviours and mindsets from a distance is a challenge. And in our current market conditions, it is an urgent one.

So, I wanted to share a few bits of advice on how to lead and build resilience through this current crisis based on a combination of my own experience, and some examples from Hive Learning’s Resilience Works programme — a digital toolkit for surviving and thriving in uncertain times.

  1. Learn from every setback

I don’t think anything that I have ever dealt with in sport and business can be compared to what we are currently facing. This is much more serious than rugby.

However every setback I have ever experienced I always see as a potential learning opportunity. I never lose, I either win or I learn.

From a sporting point of view, one of the biggest setbacks I faced was losing in the quarter finals of the RWC in 1999.  For several weeks the pressure to sack the coach was intense — luckily I was backed by the team and the board, and was determined to do things differently going forward.

When you have a setback the most important thing the leader must do is make sure their team realises it is only a setback. To build a winning team you first have to learn how to build on your successes, when you have them, and how to minimise the damage to self confidence and momentum when things go wrong – and in this current climate, many things will go wrong.

You need your leaders to be able to Think Correctly Under Pressure (I call this T-CUP). This doesn’t come naturally to everyone but it is something you can teach.

For example, Hive Learning – the peer learning platform that I founded in 2013 — have developed a toolkit designed to help people build resilience in themselves and their teams, lead from a distance, and solve problems fast. It focuses on giving people really practical actions they can put into practice immediately.

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One practical way to get your people in the mindset of solving problems quickly is to get your people thinking about multiple pressured scenarios you might encounter and thinking about how they would respond.

The more you do this over time, the more comfortable your team will get responding to pressured situations. We are likely in this current crisis for a while yet, so make sure you dedicate time each week to scenario planning to get your team comfortable with responding to and pivoting with change.

  1. Be collaborative and share knowledge quickly

I have a principle I use called Teamship. Teamship is about the team discussing things, sharing ideas and being open. When you have a small team, you can often create that by meeting regularly and being together.

Building connections between yourself, your team, and your peers has never been more important now we’re all dispersed.

Given we are operating in a digital world, there are ways technology can help you scale teamship across your whole company.

Your team will be more resilient and move faster if they solve problems together – swap, challenges and ideas to find solutions quickly. It’s really important you give an opportunity to give everyone a voice across the ranks – from the 18-year-old apprentice who’s just come straight from school, right across to the CEO.

Hive Learning works with a FTSE100 client called Halma to provide them with one central platform that enables their teams to immediately share thoughts and ideas while getting instant feedback on what everyone else is thinking. From their peer learning networks, they’ve come up with entirely new business models, increased productivity and reported record profit growth and been able to communicate core business info at speed during Covid-19.

Our success through this crisis will ultimately be determined by the way in which we communicate, collaborate and support each other and our customers. So give your people a way of collaborating together to solve problems faster from their homes and across borders in a way that’s immediate and scalable.

  1. Offer high support, but don’t forget about offering high challenge

We are operating in a challenging and uncertain period. People are anxious and unsettled and will constantly seek certainty.  Apart from their obvious concerns about health and family, they will also be worried about the implications of this pandemic on their job and income. So it’s essential that you offer your teams a high level of support in this time.

In the excellent book Grit by Dr Angela Duckwork, she makes the argument that to build gritty teams, as a leader you need to be both high challenge and high support.

The balance of support and challenge that we bring to our teams is critical to leaders. Our current conditions naturally provide a level of high challenge – we need to lead with empathy but also remember to manage performance when required – helping people improve and navigate the crisis together.

As a Chelsea season ticket holder I’m a big fan of Jose Mourinho.  For his first few years at the club, Jose was the master of the high challenge and high support environment and this was backed up by the success of the team.  But by the end of his time I think the balance was wrong. The level of challenge was still high but the level of support was too low.  Too much challenge with low support can be stressful for everybody and leads to inconsistent results.

But you can go too far the other way as well. Too much support without challenge is often more comfortable for people, but issues are not dealt with directly, and people are never challenged to improve constantly.

High performing teams should allow a time and a place for conflict and radical candor. As long as everybody walks out of the team room holding hands. That’s more important than ever at this time.

  1. Model the behaviour you want to see in your team 

People look to leaders being involved to clear the way for them to be open. They want to know what you’re thinking, that it’s okay to share and be vulnerable. Technology can help you make that very visible and help your people feel like they’re part of something very special.

Be visible, be approachable and keep open lines of communication. Be positive when listening to concerns – you may have to spend a lot of time repeating the same messages but the more time you spend building trust and sharing with your team, the more likely they are to do their best work.

In summary

With our leaders facing unprecedented times of crisis, embedding critical leadership behaviours from a distance has never been more important.

Leading effectively in these uncertain times means taking nothing for granted and empowering your team to move as quickly as they can while keeping their best interests at heart.

The world is going to have to learn how to operate differently and this may be a good opportunity for us all to think about how we might use this break to end some old behaviours and to start some new ones.

Register for FREE virtual attendance to HRD Summit/US: A Virtual Experience on April 9th 2020.

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