Navigating crisis with Impeccable Leadership
By Frits Wilmsen and Christine Wank
‘How can Impeccable leadership (ILS), as a methodology, be of service to organizations and to leaders in dealing with the impact of the Corona crisis?’ ‘How can we support leaders and teams in finding their way through this uncharted terrain in such manner that we come out of this stronger — maybe different but better at the end?’ In this article we explore principles of ILS (see model below), to help leaders and teams find new guideposts now that our regular ones have been rendered irrelevant. We will end this article with suggestions and takeaways for leading and navigating this crisis.
The profound change in circumstances has robbed us of our familiar points of orientation. We have the feeling that we lost our once clear sight, and we now have to navigate through a thick fog. Our effectiveness seems limited. We need to make all kinds of decisions without having enough information to discern what the right thing to do is — the right thing for our organization, for our people, customers, suppliers, and for society — and for that matter: for ourselves.
How do we re-orientate ourselves and re-organize our work and our collaboration, and how do we find a new direction? Whom do we want to involve in our exploration? And how do we stay on track once we have decided how to move forward, when we are confronted with continuously changing circumstances?
Let us explore these questions by looking through the lens of Impeccable Leadership.This methodology has proven its effectiveness for many people and organizations on multiple occasions in the past. ILS has helped leaders make sense of ‘what’s going on’ beyond the obvious, beyond behavior, and has enabled them to make informed and effective decisions in dealing with organizational challenges. It has helped them to move forward instead of unintentionally regressing into fragmentation.
Looking through the lens of Impeccable Leadership
Before we get into our exploration, we would like to point out that Impeccable Leadership is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for every problem. Rather, it is an exploration-based reflection upon what we have learned about effective leadership. We have translated our learnings into principles that can serve and support you. You will find suggestions in this article that you can apply to your context and to the specific circumstances of your organization and to who you are.
Let us look now through the lens of Impeccable Leadership. As an explanatory framework, ILS shows us the impact of leadership behavior on the different developmental phases that teams can find themselves in. With ILS we differentiate between three different phases of team development: teams can be either reactive, active, or pro-active. Understanding which phase a team is in, helps you realize the impact you as a leader can have — or have had on the development, performance, and empowerment of the team. A dominant leader who has a demanding style creates a reactive organization. Leadership that connects with individuals, that involves and empowers people, generally produces more active and even pro-active organizations conducive to team agility and higher performance.
Every phase of team development has its chances, challenges, and pitfalls. Learning how to read the behavior of a team helps to recognize the team’s current phase of development. And knowing what phase a team is in, enables leaders to take appropriate actions that support the team’s development into the next phase. That is important because with each step towards the next level, collaboration and quality of output increase. Here you can find more information about this developmental framework and how to utilize it.
Another important lens we want to look through is the guiding principle of Impeccable Leadership. This guiding principle expresses the importance of facilitating a creative dialogue, intending to lift each other and take care of each other’s interests. From the Harvard Negotiation Project, we have learned that this leads to ‘win-win’ collaborations. In this way, we can contribute to making the whole more than the sum of its parts. This is important for (re)generating and utilizing the inherent wisdom within the system. It supports a creative conversation between parts, between people. This way of relating to one another is an incubator for creativity and innovation, that is precisely what we need to find a new orientation and to move forward.
In our work with dozens of organizations for more than thirty years, we have seen time and again that this creative dialogue is what makes the difference — in team relationships, in overcoming problems, and in delivering the results that we want. Furthermore, the intention ‘to lift each other’ is of paramount importance. In essence, this mutual support provides the resource for developing together, and it appeals to our longing to belong, to be part of something larger than ourselves, and to be able to be creative together. We can display this attitude of care and involvement when we have decided that our leadership is to serve the team, and not to prove how powerful and successful we are. This attitude of care and involvement is rooted in our deep-seated beliefs about how and why we lead. A question we can ask ourselves is: ‘Is my leadership about “me” or is it about “we”?’
Changing outlooks, changing frameworks
What will be the impact of this Corona crisis on our organization? How do we translate the consequences of the crisis into a new framework and direction for our organization? By framework we mean the mission, strategies and assignments that give orientation to members of the organization. In the ILS model you can see that the framework is depicted as the foundation of our triangle representing steering lines for leadership.
Translating the new reality into an adapted framework is challenging, because we know that some of our resources no longer exist, and previous assumptions are not valid anymore. Answering the question how to process the crisis and its consequences helps us to find a new direction.
This process is both a personal and a collective discovery. Identifying the implications of threats and opportunities, and thus organizing finding a new direction is, at its core, a leadership responsibility. And that responsibility is quite a challenge when we need to make decisions that have significant consequences while lacking the information we need. It can be frustrating and worrisome. Emotions and feelings play a critical role in influencing the quality of our interactions and decision-making. They can cloud our judgment and cause us to react out of a survival instinct. Feelings can also be a golden resource for enhancing the quality of our cooperation and our decisions. Being aware of the feelings and emotions of your team members and yourself and effectively dealing with them gives you critical leverage for navigating crises successfully.
Changing outlooks, changing priorities and changing frameworks: an organization’s response to crisis directly depends on how leaders interpret and process a crisis. As a leader we can achieve a significant effect by creating a framework that both incorporates a new purposeful direction, that makes sense to the teams on the one hand, and makes a relationship offering — an invitation to connect and to get involved — on the other. Groups need such a purposeful framework that helps them find orientation in unknown territory and to align their efforts to ‘the bigger picture.’ That does not mean you need to have all the answers, but it does mean that your intentions and aspirations need to be clear. One way to do this could be to call for team involvement, invite them to make sense of the challenges together and to co-create renewed direction as basis for such a framework.
Before we will explore developmental pathways to navigate this crisis, let us first step back and look what we can learn from leadership responses in dealing with crisis in the past.
Leadership responses in times of crisis
How did leaders respond to shocks and crises in the past? And what can be learned from that in dealing with the current crisis effectively? We have organized types of leadership responses into three general categories: ‘Taking control,’ ‘withdrawal,’ and ‘sponsorship.’
Research shows that leaders tend to become more directive towards their employees in times of crisis, which we take as our first category of leadership response: ‘taking control.’ Here, leaders tend to make more and more decisions on their own and become more controlling. This causes the members of an organization to become less flexible and to lose the courage to be pro-active and make decisions on their own. People become reactive, compliant, and stop speaking up. Although the opposite tendencies would be crucial for adapting to new circumstances, for performing well, and for maintaining both continuity and innovation.
In the second category of leadership responses, we see ‘withdrawal.’ Leaders retreat (into themselves) and do not make decisions at all. At the core of this response is fear: the fear of making a mistake. Although the previous category of taking control also represents a fear-driven response, the behavior behind that first reaction is action-oriented — the ‘we need to do something’ attitude — and the goal is taking control. This second category of withdrawal, however, is about leaders who are paralyzed and get frozen by fear. Either the situation in itself seems overwhelming, or you get lost in analysis paralysis, or the fear of making a mistake and being afraid of the consequences are holding you back.
A famous example of this was the handling of the crisis in Chernobyl. At the time, those responsible denied the extreme danger that the explosion brought with it, which led to terrible consequences. We also witnessed several leadership responses of the second category during this Corona crisis, where the severity of the crisis was denied and “business as usual” was advocated. Leaders who are in denial or retreat seem to believe that no decision is better than a bad one. Although not making a decision is a decision in and of itself. The result of this withdrawing behavior of a leader in a crisis is that teams lack orientation. People do not know what to do and will start mirroring the behavior of the leader: they will become reactive and focus on their own (departmental) interest. Moreover, such fear can be “infectious” and have a paralyzing effect on the team as well. This leads to fragmentation and endangers continuity, let alone necessary adaptation and innovation.
Perhaps you find yourself in one of the first two categories right now. Do not worry, this is only human. An article from the BBC provides us with the conclusion of psychologists that people often make self-destructive decisions under pressure because of neuro-biological reactions: ‘although it looks passive from the outside when we are paralyzed with fear, the brain is actively putting on the brakes. As adrenaline surges through the body and our muscles tense, the primitive “little brain” at the base of our necks sends a signal to keep us rooted to the spot’. The function is to protect ourselves and serve our survival — at least from a neurobiological point of view. Even though this might be a first human response, effective leadership asks for something else.
There is also a third category of response to a crisis: ‘sponsorship.’ At the core, this is a leadership approach that allows you to stay open and connected, even and especially when the times get rough. Leaders who respond with ‘sponsorship’ might also feel fear, but they are not driven by it. They can manage their emotions and stay calm while experiencing tension. They dare to face reality, they collect the relevant data, and they involve the expertise of others and bring critical voices to the table to make informed decisions for the whole system. They have cultivated the personal strength or ‘inner ground’ that helps to transcend reactive responses towards more pro-active responses, leveraging our different intelligences such as our head, heart, and gut.
The role of the sponsor is about leadership that is open to new ideas and is sensitive to what people need. The sponsor serves the ‘we’ and leverages the wisdom of the system. The sponsor allows uncertainty and addresses emotions with care and involvement. The leader as a sponsor embraces ‘not knowing’ in order to see and sense the opportunities that are emerging moment by moment. Thus, a sponsor looks through and even beyond the crisis.
How you can move yourself and your team from more reactive and fear-driven responses to a more active and pro-active way to move forward will be part of the following sections of our article.
How the ILS methodology can help you to navigate through crisis
How do I apply Impeccable Leadership to my context? The Impeccable Leadership methodology offers both a diagnostic tool and a way to deepen our understanding of the different phases of development you and your team might be in. At the same time, it offers a roadmap to navigate your journey from reactive leadership and team responses to more pro-active behavior and “sponsorship.”
In this section, we will take you step by step through the different phases and respective leadership roles that support your navigation through a crisis. We will end this article by sharing some general and succinct suggestions to take away about how to navigate this crisis in such a way that we might emerge more resilient than before from this challenge.
Leveraging leadership roles and their impact for navigating crisis
One of the strengths of ‘Impeccable Leadership’ are the leadership roles that we have identified which are connected and functional to different phases of team development. In using the term leadership ‘role’, we mean leadership behaviour and function of leadership in a system. It can be taken up by one person as well as by many or the whole team. Roles in itself are neither good nor bad. Rather roles are effective or not, depending on which phase of development you and your team are in, and on what is needed to move forward to realizing results.
Let us start by introducing the leadership roles related to each phase of development.  The first two roles are related to and functional in the reactive phase, where you and your team face this crisis and might be dealing with insecurity, fear and loss of orientation.
The role of the guide provides ‘a map of the territory’ that helps team members re-orientate in times of crisis and supports them in finding their way in changed circumstances. The guide shares the latest guidelines and priorities with the team and provides a ‘warm welcome’ while inviting people to express themselves. The guide makes sure that the practicalities are taken care of, e.g., by providing alternative ways to connect online. As a guide, we need to set the stage with a clear framework, and then invite team members to discuss their ideas and topics that are relevant for them. Thereby, we also co-create with the team. After these leadership interventions, it is important to shift to the next roles in order to ensure that we move forward.
The role of the expert is based upon the knowledge needed to run primary processes. The expert knows about the ‘what’ and ‘how-to’ on the content level and can therefore answer technical questions. This role strengthens the team in dealing appropriately with challenges. The expert provides answers. The team gets relevant information by listening. Especially in the corona crisis we can see the importance of expertise. International researchers and research institutions can offer valuable insights into the understanding of the corona virus, its dangers and which efforts and priorities can help to effectively deal with it.
Both roles of the guide and expert are necessary but not sufficient in moving forward to the next levels of development, such as the active and pro-active phase. They evoke a rather reactive behavior if applied in isolation. In order to effectively deal with the crisis, all the relevant voices of the system are needed e.g. for community-building and cooperation in the health sector, as well as a shared commitment to behavior that limits the spread of the virus and other pro-active behavior needed to move forward.
The next two roles can show the way forward to facilitate active and pro-active levels of development.
The coach is the first role in the active phase of team development. The steering line of the triangle in the ILS model highlights the importance of connection in order to move to the next phase of development. The coach can support team members beyond the level of content and can connect on the level of feelings and needs, which is very important in order to empower people for dealing with the stress and emotions that are predominant in times of crisis. The impact of the coach shows up through the developmental shift of the team from ‘reactive’ to ‘active.’ This is the incubator for creative dialogue and for collective collaboration that moves us forward.
The negotiator makes sure that we enlarge the pie before we split it. He or she explores different perspectives, welcomes diverse ideas and approaches, and helps the team have a conversation that leads to combining the best of several worlds and to creating the best possible way forward. This leads to commitment. Since the team members are involved in the process and recognize the outcome, they are intrinsically motivated instead of being frustrated because ‘no one listens.’ We hereby follow the steering line of the triangle of the ILS model from connection to commitment.
Both the role of the coach and the role of the negotiator have overall activating effects on team behaviors. However, in order to transcend the current challenge and to leverage the power of the whole system, we need two other roles.
The sponsor is the first role of the pro-active phase. It integrates all of the prior roles and balances them according to needs and context. For example, the integration of the roles of guide, expert, coach, and negotiator help us to establish the dialogue needed for co-creating our new framework, for adapting our assignments for the whole organization and for the teams that are then aligned with the image of the greater mission. This newly co-created framework should then be broken down into multiple aligned tasks that we assign to people who have both the skills and the motivation to realize the required outcomes. In order to leverage collaboration, the leader becomes actively connected to the ideas, feelings, and needs of the team members and vice versa.
As stated earlier in this article, the sponsor role represents leadership that is open to new ideas and is sensitive to what people need. The sponsor serves the ‘we’ by being open, by searching for facts, by stimulating informed explorations and creativity and by displaying his or her intention to make quality-based decisions. The sponsor embraces uncertainty and addresses emotions with care and involvement. The sponsor cultivates a state of calmness within the tension to be able to see what is emerging in each moment, and to be able to involve the teams — to involve the wisdom of the system. The sponsor keeps the needs of the ‘organization as a whole’ in mind and acts accordingly, even if doing so does not suit his or her personal interests. The development of awareness, connection and creativity of the previous two phases have laid the foundation for pro-active collaboration within the whole system and organization which is more than the sum of its parts.
The awakener is focused on the mission of the organization — on its why. The awakener looks for answers to the questions: ’What do we want to contribute to our larger context?’ ‘In what way do we want to create value for the world, for our customers, and for our people?’ The awakener helps us to find a practical and spiritual perspective, like David Brooks was offering in the NY Times: ‘It’s the story we tell about this moment. It’s the way we tie our moment of suffering to a larger narrative of redemption. It’s the way we then go out and stubbornly live out that story. The plague today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.’
In his or her core, the awakener is not stuck in the current crisis and can help us look through the fog and lift us up spiritually so that we can connect with an inspiring future. And this allows us to come into a dialogue with our highest future possibilities. The awakener takes care of the interests of all those involved and defines success in terms of the health of the organization and the larger context.The awakener translates what it means to be a human being into leadership.
How can these roles be of service to you as a leader? They can give you inspiration to choose the respective roles given the phase of development your team is in and what is needed to move forward and enhance team development and performance. You can start by asking yourself: In which phase is my team right now and what kind of development is needed? What leadership role(s) would support my team right now? How can I find a good balance between the diverse roles as sponsor? Such answers are the resources for navigating new terrain and crafting trajectories forward.
Key suggestions and take-aways for leading and navigating this crisis
Based on our prior reflections and insights how ILS can serve you in this current crisis, we want to offer some key take-aways and suggestions how you can start working with ILS.
1. First of all, even in the midst of crisis, find a moment to pause, reflect and regenerate — be it just 5 minutes in between or at the beginning of your day. This is the first step to allow you to shift your inner state from reactive to a more pro-active and generative state and access your inner resources to effectively deal with this crisis.
2. In this line, develop a sponsor ‘attitude’ and the ‘personal strength’ to be able to serve the whole before your personal interests, while transcending fear. Although we might be forced to respond quickly, it is important to pause and to feel and think about: What are my and our tendencies in responding to this crisis. What are we avoiding, and what are we afraid of? And what would happen if we move towards what we tend to avoid? What would be the long-term consequences? These questions can help us avoid knee-jerk reactions and stimulate our ability to make conscious decisions.
3. Make sure to act even though not all information is available. In a crisis, ‘perfectionism is the enemy of effectiveness.’ Do not let yourself be paralyzed. Define clear priorities that guide behavior and decision-making, create short feedback loops and adapt while moving forward.
4. Reach out to people — connect. Ask questions about how the crisis is affecting them. Ask them about their needs and how you can support them. Both support and acceptance influence our moods and help us feel empowered. More importantly: what we have learned from organizations is that over time ‘video conferences’ tend to become shorter and more content-driven. So now it becomes even more important that you regularly ask how people are doing and provide room for worries and challenges. That way, you can stay connected to what people need to remain empowered and able to perform. This way you also demonstrate your care and involvement and your understanding of their situations, e.g., that you understand the challenge of working at home with kids running around.
5. In this vein, be transparent about your own feelings and needs as well. In doing so you can enhance trust. Trust is empowering. The paradox is, however, that openness and vulnerability precede trust. And as renowned thoughtleader in leadership Joseph Jaworskisays: ’Activating trust over fear is a choice’. It is all about being human first, and only after that it is about content.
6. Work in phases. This enables a developmental approach. The first phase of development is reactive. A team can be reactive in the beginning, or it may fall back to a reactive state from a pro-active one because it lacks orientation or is afraid. This is entirely normal. For inspiration on how to deal with that and to help you design trajectories forward, you can work with the leadership roles along the developmental phases and leadership steering lines which we have described in the prior sections.
7. Performance is all about having a clear framework, having the required competencies, maintaining the sponsor attitude, and an empowering mindset and mood. If you can sustain the balance of these factors, you will unfold the generative power of individuals, teams and your organization.
Where can I find further support and resources?
Would you like to continue or deepen your learning and get inspired — please check out our manifold offerings in different countries such as our online and offline courses, e.g. personal coaching offerings, masterclasses, leadership journeys, leadership and performance scan, team intensives and collective discoveries with the Transformational Process Model of ILS.
In case you have any other questions or need further support please contact us directly by mail at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
We are grateful to our colleagues who have helped us in crafting this article. A special thanks goes to David Cummins (The Ministry Group).
 These roles are inspired by Robert Dilts (2003): From Coach to Awakener.
 See also the more general statement by Marc Lauwers, CEO of Argenta Belgium:’ Impeccable Leadership translates what it mean to be a human being into leadership.’ in his foreword of the upcoming book “Impeccable Leadership” by Frits Wilmsen and Nienke Schaeffer.
 For activating your generative state in self and others explore the profound work of Stephen Gilligan and Roberts Dilts (www.generative-change.com).
 As shared by Joseph Jaworski (Generon International) in the MasterClass interview series of the Generative Facilitation Institute in April 2020 (www.generativefacilitation.com).