Leading Through Crisis

Gerald shares 15 lessons

Gerald Abila is a serial entrepreneur, an Attorney and Founder of BarefootLaw. He believes that access to law and justice are the fundamental building blocks of a just, equitable and thriving society in which human rights are respected; and that technology has a significant role to play in building a society where people are aware of their human rights, duties and obligations.

Today, he leads a team of 25 staff, whose joint mission is to educate and guide people on the Law. Our goal is to ‘‘make access to justice and the Law readily available to 50 million people across Africa by 2030.’’ To date, BarefootLaw have served nearly 700,000 Ugandans, whose legal needs vary across the board. 

‘‘ I was always a leader of one kind or the other from my primary school right up to my University days, where I took part in Student Politics,’’ Gerald narrates. ‘‘The first time I learnt of a different side of leadership was when I started BarefootLaw and learnt that there are other sides to leadership over and above political leadership. A turning point for me in this journey was when I won the Young Achiever Awards for Leadership and Social enterprise in 2013. This is given to Ugandans under 30 doing great work.’’

Gerald then took part in a number of leadership trainings including; Legal Rebel by the American Bar Association for using technology to transform global legal practice. Other honors included the 100 leading Legal Consultants and Strategists in the world for 2018 by the Law Dragon in New York, Echoing Green fellow, Draper Richards Kaplan entrepreneur, and a Laurette of the Africa Development Prize by the King Baudouin Foundation. Recently, he was named a Rainer Arnhold Fellow by the Mulago Foundation.

Leading through Crisis

Note: This segment is written in first person, as was presented by Gerald during his talk last week.

For the past one month, I have had an opportunity to lead a small organisation, barely a start-up, through the most severe crisis affecting mankind- the COVID19 crisis.

When this crisis started, myself, like a number of others were confused. None the less, we started planning. We got the senior management team at BarefootLaw and went through a meeting guided by these questions;

  • Where do you see this crisis in 30,60 and 90 days?
  • How can we prepare?

We then developed a contingency plan around this which we are executing to this date.

This was about one (1) month before it was even declared a crisis and before the lockdown in Uganda.

We locked offices about one (1) week before the lockdown and planned to work remotely for atleast three (3) months.

The Crisis Management Strategy

  1. The planning; We planned for this crisis in 4 stages. I exchanged notes with Richard Susskind, Author of Online Courts and the Future of Justice, on this and realized I wasn’t far off because he too looked at the crisis in stages not far from these four (4) stages.
     
  2. The crisis
  3. The Rise
  4. The Advance
  5. The Genus

NB: The last 3 I got from an underground band in 1979.

  • During the crisis

Throughout this time, I came to learn that the most important tool an organisation (or even a country) can have is good leadership.

This intrigued me further on studying leadership and so I started writing down what I thought were important lessons; taken from my personal experiences, lessons from the leaders I have as mentors and also from observation of how different leaders are dealing with the crisis.

  • I noticed that ;
  1. True leadership is born through crisis


Any leader can lead a team through ordinary times, but true leadership is defined in extra ordinary times, more so in times of crisis. At this time, a leader’s default attributes come into play and will have a significant effect on the decisions made, whose outcomes might have a butterfly effect on the team, and those who rely on the team for survival.  

  • Crisis and Justice:

    A crisis is like justice, it ought not only to be dealt with, but also seen to be dealt with. Often, through a crisis, being seen to deal with a crisis is as important as actually dealing with the crisis. 
  • To-date, I have noted down 30 lessons but for this discussion, I shall focus on fifteen (15).

If there is need for further clarification, please do let me know in the comment section below.

Ok, here goes!

Lessons for Leading Through Crises

  1. Foresight

The ability to go into the future, anticipate future happenings from a broader scale, and then return to the present and guide one’s organisation/ company to navigate into that future.

2. Adapt:

Ably stated by Charles Darwin in this amazing quote;-  ” It is not the most intellectual or the strongest of species that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself. “

3. Intuition

A crisis like the COVID19 crisis gives us an opportunity to fine tune our intuition as leaders. Leaders, will have to make decisions with nothing but one’s intuition. In certain situations, there is not enough information for one to make an informed decision. In such a situation, one ought to learn to follow through with nothing more than that gut feeling. 

Intuition is informed by several factors that have influenced one’s leadership capacity or ability. While we might not be able to understand the intuition, we can, through practice, follow through and understand the reasons we make some of the decisions we make. 

This way, a crisis like the COVID19 crisis gives us a chance, as leaders, to closely examine our thought process and use this to understand the logic of intuition.

4. Boldness and decision-making.

In a crisis, decisive and bold decisions have to be made. The golden rule for bold decision-making is the earlier the decision is made, the better in the long run. Do not let decisions linger on and do not let them be ambiguous and subject to more than one interpretation. Clarity of the decision is as important as the boldness in which the decision is taken. 

In being bold, a leader ought to base their decisions on reliable information at hand – data and intuition to make decisions. A leader in many crisis situations is reduced to a decision-maker and such a leader will be judged by the nature of decisions and their effectiveness towards meeting the goals of the organisation. In crisis times, often, not making a decision is worse than making a wrong decision. 

In such times, decisions must be made, and made quickly.

5. Innovation:

Think of it this way, if one’s sphere of influence is a ship, then innovation is the radar that will help the ship navigate troubled waters towards the lighthouse.

In a crisis, no one is equipped with enough information to make informed decisions. Some of the most eminent persons in the sector have known about this virus for only three months. This means, every solution to circumvent, or deal with this virus is to a large extent based on the scant information available to us, and to leaders.

This means a leader will still have to keep the organisation going on and when an obstacle is encountered, be open to coming up with innovative solutions to overcome it. Innovation in such a situation is “on the go” and is akin to building an aircraft while already in flight.  

6. Do what you do, do it well, and do it on time and with values.

I guess this is self-explanatory. Emphasis on this however, should be on “doing what you do,” reason being that if you do not know what you do, including your overall vision and mission, then it becomes challenging to do it well and on time.

Again, if leadership were a ship, the values are that lighthouse to which the ship will navigate. In times of crisis, core values of leadership are selflessness and service.

7. Talking truth to power

Forget talking truth to power if you cannot talk truth to peers. In a crisis, more than ever, talking truth to peers is as important as the core survival of the team in its current form.

Gerald sharing his leadership lessons during the first ever “Leadership in Crisis – HiiL Wednesday Webinar Series” last week.

8. Followership

First there is leadership and then there is followership. In a crisis, we might sometimes end up getting caught up in tunnel vision to focus on survival of the organisation. Through a crisis however, it is important to lead, but even more important is for one to be a follower. Followership is as important as leadership and is what will get the team to rally behind a leader.

9. Listen, and listen well.

Because information is necessary for decision making, and will often times back up one’s intuition, it is important to listen to the rest of the team as often as possible because at some point during the crisis, one will be required, at short notice, to make a quick decision with the information available at hand.

10. Learn, and unlearn

In a crisis, one ought to be open to learn and unlearn as quickly as possible. In this process, a leader is only as strong as the sum of the surrounding team.

11. Values

There are things that can be taught, and others that cannot be taught. In times of crisis, the true value system of individual members of the team start to manifest. A leader ought to align the strengths of the team along the values, moreso those which cannot be taught.

Take for example during recruitment, the decision to hire a team member ought to be primarily focused on the values, and capabilities of members of the team that cannot be taught, and take time to strengthen those that can be taught.

12. Know what you know, and know what you do not know

In times of crisis, a leader’s strong point is in knowing what he does not know, and seeking for answers to what he does not know.

13. Spinach

In times of crisis, the team places faith in a leader and the decision making of the leader. A leader ought to know where he/ she derives strength. Like Popeye the sailor whose strength was in Spinach, every leader ought to know what their version of Spinach is.

14. Show concern for the team

As a team places faith in a leader, the leader ought to show concern for the team. Concern is a currency that will increase productivity of the rest of the team. If there was a social contract involving faith from the team to the leader, then the exchange for the leader to the rest of the team is to show concern.

15. Pitstop and knowing when to stop

Like a rally car, a leader ought to know when to call a time out, step aside and recharge. This gives the leader time to carry out a self-diagnosis of him/ herself and get ready before coming back on the tracks.

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