Leading with credibility in a crisis

Honesty is always the best policy, right? But remaining credible as a leader during the COVID-19 crisis can be challenging with so many unknowns.

Kenneth Greger and James Theodore, partners in the Travel & Hospitality Practice at global executive search firm August Leadership, asked key industry leaders, including Accor’s Sébastien Bazin, Marriott’s Arne Sorenson, Edie Rodriguez, immediate past chairman of the Americas, Ponant Cruise Line, and industry legend Mike Leven how to lead during such a moment with so much uncertainty. Read what they also have to say about leading through a crisis, managing careers and maintaining momentum as hoteliers workk their way through the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, get the author’s takeaways.

Greger/Theodore: There is no playbook for this, yet everyone is looking to top leadership. How do you lead in the unknown and maintain your credibility?

Edie Rodriguez: Honesty is always the best policy. A respected leader maintains credibility by being honest and humble enough to admit that he or she doesn’t always have all the answers, and that is okay. Leaders of nations around the globe have no playbook for what the world is experiencing right now. Every leader is doing the best that they can during these unprecedented circumstances.

Let your people know you are keeping yourself educated and informed 24/7 of what is happening globally from both economic and scientific standpoints, and that you’re evaluating how those facts trickle into the industry and then, on a micro level, to your specific company. Let them know your sources of information and the credible sources of your data. Lastly, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all of the answers, but, together, you, they, and your company will not only survive, but you all will thrive together through this challenge that all of us in the world are faced with. We are all truly in this together.

Sorensen: Today, we are really dealing with many unknowns. No one knows how long this crisis will last. But, as a leader, I think that regardless of external circumstances, you gain credibility when you’re authentic in your communication; when you show your humanity. You have to be honest and transparent. Sometimes you have to take risks and sometimes you will fail. But you should surround yourself with smart, innovative thinkers who aren’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong, particularly when decisions must be made in the middle of uncertainty. Always take the time to listen, learn, inquire and collaborate.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Bazin: Remaining pragmatic is key. It’s always better to try something than to do nothing, and if it doesn’t work, to try again differently or try something else. Having humility is essential, as is remaining steadfast and committed, no matter how tough the situation gets. But I’ll be totally straight with you: ultimately, it’s not about the leader; it’s about all the other thousands of people in the organization.

In recent weeks I’ve seen the true strength of our local roots, through our remarkable ability to react differently in different countries. Throughout this crisis we have been able to get information, reflect on it and act accordingly. I’d say we have never been so close to our people, to our hotel owners, and to our communities than we have been in the last couple of months as we all share this pain together. We should never lose sight of the teams, of their fundamental strengths, and of the role each individual plays in giving an organization its true purpose and identity. That’s more important than any other leadership trait.

Leven: You have to bring in your advisors and discuss the unknown, and then be honest and say, “We don’t know how long this is going to take, so, we are going to take an action that assumes it will take longer than we’d like.” It’s best to be honest, and tell people it’s going to be a long time before we get back to normal, and we’re going to plan that way and pay that way until we have more information. To do this is a lot smarter than making promises about the unknown that you likely can’t keep.

In April of 2019 over 2 million people went through TSA each day to board flights here in the United States.  In April of this year, the daily average was just under 94,000, and you don’t know when this is going to improve. So, you’ve got to understand that your credibility is at stake with every forecast and promise you make.

Your plan has to be as changeable as possible given the unknowns. It’s ok not to know – because no one knows. It’s about credibility, transparency, and honesty. You have to try to do the right thing, but if you don’t know what the right thing is, you aren’t going to learn it in a situation like this. But you need to have the confidence to lead through the crisis and take responsibility. In a public company, you need to stay in sync with your board as well. You should never feel alone – others will help – but in the end the buck stops with you.