Using Interim Leadership to Navigate the Uncertainties of the COVID-19 Pandemic

creative silhouette of a shadowed boardroom with a speaker and people sitting in front of them

Photo derived from MIT Sloan Management Review.

By Nicholas Vankka

When the state of uncertainty had become far too certain, I, like many, came into the summer of 2020 with no clear vision of what the next four months would look like. My initial Stretch Experience proposals were canceled due to obstacles related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, I was presented with an opportunity at Halford Consulting Inc. to develop a proposal for a project involving interim leadership. 

To gain an understanding of interim leadership, I extensively researched what interim leadership is and how it plays out in a variety of circumstances. Kirby Bates Associates defines an interim leader as one who will “serve for a temporary duration through times of leadership transition within organizations.” These transitions are often unplanned and are carried out in a crisis scenario. As I continued my research, I observed many similarities between the complications of unplanned leadership transitions and the turmoil our world is experiencing due to the pandemic. I recognized three major phases that encapsulate both the notions of unplanned leadership transitions and the major changes our society has experienced due to COVID-19. The phases are recognition, adjustment and re-stabilization.

An organization’s recognition of its own context is critical to its survival during a leadership transition. A strong understanding of the environment around an organization will “provide decision makers with important knowledge about current situations and situation dynamics in relation to their goals, functions, and information needs, to enable them to appropriately adapt their decisions and actions” (Rogova, 1970). Furthermore, an accurate picture of the organizational context will allow for a precise analysis of whether an interim leader is needed for this transition and for gauging what type of interim leader will best suit the respective organization. Since many interim leaders’ tenures are in response to a major crisis, the context must be defined in a fast and efficient manner. Similarly, we witnessed this rapid analysis of context when COVID-19 became the new reality of our world. Recognition of the pandemic was reflected in many countries, provinces and states by a declaration of a state of emergency. Understanding and accepting the turbulence created by the pandemic impelled governments around the world to take action.

After a thorough analysis of the situational context, organizations and governments must implement changes to continue moving forward. It is critical for new interim leaders to onboard effectively, understand the organizational culture and values, and communicate on a regular basis with other members of the organization. These critical adjustments are what strengthens the organization’s vision of their near future. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our way of life on so many levels, the Canadian government acted quickly to assess the impacts and take action. Some of their decisions included: increased border control, providing financial support, and developing the COVID Alert app. These adjustments were essential to provide clarity to Canadian citizens, paralleling the clarity provided to organizational staff following the initial administrations made by an interim leader.

Finally, when appropriate adjustments are implemented, the organization can re-stabilize and get back on track. During a leadership transition, it is an interim leader who can “steady the ship” while the organization seeks out a permanent replacement (Emerson, 2020).This re-stabilization prioritizes the maintenance of sufficient performance in a time of uncertainty, which includes identifying what is working and what is not working. Even though an organization has made an adjustment to move forward, consistent evaluation of that adjustment is important to ensure the forward momentum continues throughout the leadership transition. We have seen re-stabilization in a variety of ways with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Examples include the mandatory use of masks in public, limiting seating in restaurants to enforce physical distancing, and online delivery of post-secondary education. Just as interim leaders may be uncertain about their timeline with an organization, we are also unclear about the timeline of this current pandemic. Although the re-stabilization phase may not have a formal timeframe, in both the COVID-19 and interim leader scenarios, it is critical that the re-stabilization is an active and reflective process. 

After conducting my research, I concluded my Stretch Experience by developing a syllabus for a Halford Consulting Inc. course on employing an interim leader during a leadership transition. Being that the outcome of my Stretch Experience was not initially defined, the uncertainty forced me to determine how I would express the data from my research in a way that would be beneficial to others.

In a way, we are all acting as interim leaders during this pandemic. The significant changes COVID-19 has presented to our society have forced us to temporarily adapt and balance the many factors that shape our daily lives. By recognizing, adjusting and re-stabilizing our own personal methods in life, we can each move forward in a positive way despite the uncertainties that still lie ahead.

Nicholas Vankka is a undergraduate student in the Faculty of Science and a PLLC scholar. This post was originally published as an article in PLLC’s leadership & COVID-19 series.


Works Cited

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Canada’s response (2020, August 10). Government of Canada. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/canadas-reponse.html

Emerson, M. (2020, July 21). Interim leaders steady the ship: Adaptable business models with outcomes in mind. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.globalbankingandfinance.com/interim-leaders-steady-the-ship-adaptable-business-models-with-outcomes-in-mind/

Rogova, G. (1970, January 01). Crisis Management and Context. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-22527-2_6

What are the Benefits of Interim Leadership in Healthcare? (2019, September 23). Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://kirbybates.com/blog/what-are-the-benefits-of-interim-leadership-in-healthcare/

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