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How leaders can best set priorities during the coronavirus crisis

Executives at a crisis communications firm observe that reactive decision-making gives the illusion of control but can’t be successful because it lacks focus and goals. They say the simple act of setting priorities can make all of the difference.

How leaders can best set priorities during the coronavirus crisis
[Photos: NeONBRAND/Unsplash; Felipe Esquivel Reed/Wikimedia Commons]

The developing coronavirus epidemic, like all crises, is disorienting, fast-paced, and exhausting. Information seems to change daily, and decisions made one morning are outdated by the next. Business leaders face difficult choices in responding to the virus. Every option seems to have unacceptable financial or human costs. Some businesses are temporarily shutting their doors. Others have upended their usual business practices to accommodate remote working or social distancing. A small but critical group, such a grocery stores, struggle to responsibly meet surging demand. These are decisions, reevaluated and tweaked daily, which have significant impacts on employees, vendors, investors, and the community.

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One of the hallmarks of crisis is that the status quo is untenable. Change cannot be avoided, nor can everything be preserved. Most people have been untested by true crisis, and the pressure can feel insurmountable, leading to reactive behavior or paralysis. Reactive decision-making gives the illusion of control but can’t be successful because it lacks focus and goals. Paralyzed leaders surrender agency and become passive observers. The simple act of setting priorities can make all of the difference.

What is a priority?

Successful crisis leadership requires priorities. A few targeted priorities set early in a crisis provide a leader with much needed signposts to help address difficult issues such as potential layoffs, business closures, and supply chain failure. Priorities are both an anchor and a way of evaluating decisions. They help the leader make difficult choices in a manner that aligns with their long-term goals and values. Priorities ease the chaos of crisis while providing clarity, both of which are necessary to ensure that the leader is effective.

Priorities are also different than goals. Goals are part of planning. They are a target, an achievement, something to tick off of a list. But, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army famously observed, no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Daily goals can be very centering, but in the shifting landscape of the coronavirus crisis, they may not bring a feeling of being centered or calm. That’s where priorities come in. Priorities emphasize states of mind rather than external factors, actions, or desired outcomes. A leader may not be in control of many things in a crisis, but priorities are things within their control. When you reach the edge of the map, priorities are your guide stars.

Essential questions to ask to set priorities

Setting priorities can be a deeply personal task. Some of the questions that you and your executive team might ask yourselves include:

  • What is most important to preserve during the crisis? (reputation, connection with customers, expertise, momentum on a certain project etc.)
  • What traits or characteristics do you want to display in this crisis?
  • If you look back on the crisis in 10 years, what will make you feel like you managed the crisis well?
  • Are there particular morals or guiding principles that feel important to you at this time?
  • What key relationships do you want to maintain during this crisis? (It is important to think beyond your immediate stakeholders and to also consider relationships with your community and your family.)
  • To what do you aspire during this crisis? (calm, courageous, heroic, measured etc.)
  • What would make you feel proud even if the crisis ends badly for you or your business?

Priorities might include relatively concrete concepts such as “protect employees,” “put customer relationships first,” or “preserve capital.” They may also be more general, such as “do what is right for the community” or “act as a leader in my field.” A short list of two or three priorities is both simple and clarifying.

Priorities sound deceptively straightforward but, like all big ideas, they are deeply powerful. You won’t get everything right. You won’t have the resources, time, or foresight to address every challenge. But if you set priorities and stick to them, you will know that you are working on what really matters.

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Meredith Parfet is the founder and CEO Aaron Solomon is the director of Strategy for the Ravenyard Group, a crisis communications firm.

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