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Early business leadership lessons from the Ukraine crisis

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By John M. Bremen | March 17, 2022

Five key leadership lessons from the business community during the early days of the Ukraine crisis.

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John Bremen is a guest contributor for Forbes.com, writing on topics including the future of work, leadership strategy, compensation and benefits, and sustainable strategies that support productivity and business success.

Business leaders have led their organizations through multiple and often concurrent crises over the past two years: the COVID-19 pandemic, financial shocks, a series of “hundred-year” weather events, social disruption, and significant labor shortages. Future-seeking leaders understand that leading through a geopolitical crisis is different due to its unique nature and immediacy.

While many leaders were caught off-guard by the COVID-19 pandemic, they had reasonable warning that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a strong possibility. Those with foresight planned for the rapid impact the invasion would have on people, economic volatility, supply chain, cyber, technology, reputation, and broader geopolitical considerations, especially in the context of simultaneous crises.

Key leadership lessons from the business community during the early days of the Ukraine crisis include:

  1. 01

    Recognizing tipping points and acting with purpose

    Numerous examples exist of businesses supporting impacted populations with essential products and services such as food, water, internet service, and power. By taking a long-term view, staying true to their organizations’ purpose and values, and exhibiting courage, leaders also have kept commitments to long-term goals while maintaining focus on enterprise risks. Pulling out of countries and disposing of billions of dollars of assets may not seem supportive of long-term goals at first glance. Staying the course in-country may not seem so either. But both strategies can reflect a longer-term, more nuanced view that recognizes tipping points while supporting values, purpose, and profit. Future-seeking leaders are distinguishing the values and actions of state leaders from the values of their employees, customers, and suppliers. They are demonstrating that they support their people, wherever they are.

  2. 02

    Focusing on employee safety and wellbeing

    While employee safety and wellbeing frequently (and rightly) are the first objectives leaders focus on during any crisis, required actions during geopolitical conflict differ from other crises in both timing and type of action. For example, during the first hours of Russia’s invasion, future-seeking leaders arranged for immediate employee relocations to safe areas both for the sake of employee safety and business continuity. For those employees unable to relocate, leaders have remained in regular communication through emergency channels, providing physical and emotional support where possible. Anticipating that banking access would be limited due to the conflict or sanctions, they also paid employees in impacted areas in advance.

  3. 03

    Using elastic innovation to shift decision processes

    One of the most difficult challenges during crises is addressing immediate, short-term needs at the cost of executing long-term strategies. Geopolitical disruption requires changes to decision making and elastic innovation processes, as well as quick shifts of effort and investment in areas that may not have been part of original plans but serve more immediate needs. Examples during the Ukraine crisis have included providing new telecommunication and insurance and financial services in impacted areas. This approach is enabling organizations to manage and have impact across multiple locations and time horizons, while continuing to address the pandemic, financial volatility, climate events, and The Great Resignation in parallel.

  4. 04

    Accelerating supply chain and production continuity efforts

    Whereas in other crises, supply chain and production are impacted gradually, geopolitical crises threaten key processes almost immediately. To meet demand for products and supplies from Russia and Ukraine, future-seeking leaders have accelerated trends already under way, such as onshoring or alternative operational strategies. To ensure the availability of raw materials, products and employees during blockades, border disputes, embargoes, and military action, they also have increased agile manufacturing and distributed procurement, production, service, and distribution practices while shifting to remote work for employee safety and business continuity.

  5. 05

    Stepping up cyber and technology protection

    While always on duty for cyber and technology defenses, future-seeking leaders have been quick to redouble efforts by playing both defense and offense to protect data and infrastructure. For example, they are using advanced User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) to monitor the normal conduct of users, detect anomalous behavior or deviations from regular patterns, and take appropriate countermeasures. They also are redistributing network resources to and from impacted areas to protect local infrastructure and global network integrity.

During the Ukraine crisis, future-seeking leaders are demonstrating organizational resilience, the ability to bounce back from adverse events, and learn lessons from these events, enabling them to emerge better positioned against similar occurrences and increase speed to recovery in financial, operational, and human terms:

  • Financial: Employ various risk mitigation and investment opportunities to adapt to unpredictable events and protect and sustain returns.
  • Operational: Execute new ways to conduct business, including emergency response planning, crisis management, workforce flexibility and technologies to operate regardless of circumstances.
  • Human: Meet employees’ individual physical, emotional, financial, and social wellbeing needs and enable employees and organizations to thrive under the most trying conditions.

Future-seeking leaders put all elements together literally in the fog of war, understanding that they only see some of what is happening, and continually recognizing implications despite needing to make rapid decisions before full information is available. They are agile and show courage when pivoting and are comfortable with ambiguity. They lead colleagues through chaos by remaining calm, listening, and acting quickly and decisively. They learn from recent and more distant history with full knowledge that this situation is unique, that they will continue to learn and modify their thinking in the coming weeks and months, and that they are positioned to impact future outcomes.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on March 9, 2022.

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