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Corona-crisis leadership: Crossing the River of Rapid Transition

By Cameron Findlater, Principal Consultant

The Corona-virus crisis means on-going, over-lapping, rapid transitions for everyone. Now, in the coming months, and possibly years.

My Crossing the River of Rapid Transition model is a memorable ‘top-level’ visual image which is helping organisational leaders to make sense of what is going on for themselves, peers and colleagues. It helps leaders to identify what practical acts of leadership their organisation needs from them. When shared in your organisation, it can provide a common image, language, and aid understanding of the rapid transition that is underway and how you are all responding.

I’d like you to stop reading for a moment. Reflect on the change(s) required of you (and other individuals in your organisation) due to the Coronavirus crisis. Name the emotions you experienced i) at the start of the crisis when ‘lock-down’ was announced, ii) when the initial emergency changes were being planned and implemented, and iii) when /if a ‘holding-state’ was established? Keep this in mind as you look at the model below and then read-on.

How might this image /model help you?

I’ll start with some transition ‘truths’ to bear in mind.

  • Transition & change differ. Transition involves human emotional responses. Change is situational

  • Emergencies, e.g. Coronavirus crisis, require rapid transition. (Starting point = Emergency ‘pier’).

  • Planned change may allow more controlled transition. (Starting point = Planned use ‘pier’).

  • Individual humans adapt /move through emotional transition at different speeds and intensities.

  • Crossing the ‘River’ brings fear and uncertainty, and opportunity to create, renew and be ready.

  • To differing extents, there is always a longing to get back to ‘normal’ /the Old World.

  • People experience a ‘stack’ of unique but simultaneous transitions e.g. work /home /personal.

  • Focus on supporting individual’s transitions is a critical element of any organisational change.

  • The other side /New World can be elusive. As the ‘fog’ clears, one river may become many.

My Crossing the River of Transition model helps senior people in organisations to lead themselves, and lead their organisations, through transition i.e. to engage people to step onto the ‘boats’ at the ‘emergency pier’, navigate fog-patches, whirlpools and rapids, visit virtual islands (e.g. for idea generation, encouragement, compassion (1), support & challenge, peer reflection (2), acknowledgement of strengths, training, giving short-term direction /delegation /control, managing polarities (3), prototyping, celebrating progress, horizon-scanning beyond lock-down …the possibilities are virtually endless!), and to sustain forward momentum to reach the other side in a higher state of readiness.

In what ways does your Coronavirus-crisis emotional experience at the start, in the ‘middle’ and at the present time relate to the model?

Were you making the most of strengths and learning styles – yours and others’ – during this time?

When leading people through transition, from the ‘Old’ and across the ‘River’ to the ‘New’, as in all acts of leadership, it is valuable to know your strengths and preferences. To make this model work for you, it is helpful to consider your preferred approach to learning. I’ll help you link this awareness to the Crossing the River image and use it to gain an even better understanding of your own (organisation’s) transitional reality and what acts of leadership your organisation needs from you.

The Crossing the River image offers something for everyone’s preferred style of learning, or what approach you tend to use in the first instance i.e.

  • If you prefer to pause and reflect on what has been happening and what keeps happening.

  • For those who find sense-making models /theory helpful to identify what’s working/problematic

  • If you like to make pragmatic use of reflection and theory, and identify helpful acts of leadership

  • For preferers of learning through action, bear with me. There is something for you at the end!

These form a learning-cycle (4) and one of these will probably be your preferred entry-point. Optimum learning and action is achieved by attending to all.

So, how does all this help you make sense of your own and your own transition, and that of your organisation, and identify helpful acts of leadership? At this stage, using the ‘frame’ of learning styles /preferences, I will offer some Questions of Leadership to ask yourself as you push-off from the emergency-use pier the left bank (Old World), stand in one of your organisations flotilla of boats on the River (rapid transition), or step ashore onto the right Bank (New World)


Where are you in the Crossing the River model?

Where are your Direct Reports?

Where are all employees?

Is everyone on-board the boats? Anyone being left behind?

If the river’s right-hand side is reached, are the banks marshy /steep and is the water current fast?

At the right bank, is everyone out of boats and moving forward in the new territory?

Where are individuals in their emotional journey as well as their situational one?

How are different individual’s being impacted and to what extent are they being resilient (5)?

How are people behaving /showing-up, or not, in the spotlight of the crisis?

How effective is communication? How can I know?

What is helping?

What is hindering?


What models, other than ‘Crossing the River’, can help you to make sense of your reflections? e.g. to

Test your assumptions

Associate with the normal sequence, or curve, of emotions. (See RHS of model for example.)

Test problem type e.g. Extent of problem clarity (High/Low) v Extent solution known (H/L).

(In this crisis, many but not every problem is novel, ‘wicked’, or reflects a ‘VUCA’ (6) scenario.)

Identify what people need to help them have the best chance of achieving solutions.

Identify appropriate acts of leadership that will provide that help.

Clarify the optimum leadership mind-set /beliefs to adopt.

Retain awareness of strengths (yours and others’.)

Enable honest assessment of the need to act quickly vs step-back before moving to action.

Consider merits of solo decision-making vs engaging with others’ diversity of thinking.

Probe the validity of evidence of success.

To what extent are your assumptions about the applicability of models still valid in the current crisis?

In what other ways does the Crossing the River of Transition model help you make sense of what you and your organisation is experiencing?


In what ways can you pragmatically apply reflection and learning to begin to resolve challenges?

What acts of leadership would help you to engage people to keep moving forwards?

In Crossing the River – What islands (real/virtual) do people need to visit to get them across?

What do we need to carry forward /leave behind?

What do people need from you /other leaders when they are in the boats?

How effective is communication?

What unfortunate truths need to be acknowledged?

What type of leadership can help?

What awareness do you have of leadership style preferences /strengths (yours and those of others)?

Might you be incorrectly framing the problem to suit your own preferred leadership style/strengths?

At any point, who is best suited to provide acts of leadership needed by people /your organisation?

How could this be a leadership development opportunity for others?

What beliefs are you holding onto that prevent you from lending leadership to others?

What ‘Old World’ assumptions inhibit you from seeing people unexpectedly ‘shine’ during crisis?


In what ways can you channel your energy in the here and now?

What acts of leadership did /does your organisation need from you?

On the Left Bank of the river (Old world)

In the Boats (during very rapid transition) …including if the initial Right Bank was a ‘mirage’

On the Right Bank (moving into the New world)

I hope that my Crossing the River of Rapid Transition model and accompanying Questions of Leadership, situated within the frame of learning style preferences, has helped you gain an enhanced understanding of your reality and to identify one or more new acts of leadership that you can respond with.

We have many years of experience in helping organisational leaders attend to the human element of change by engaging people in necessary transition (7,8). For each stage of ‘Crossing the River’, we offer interventions to help leaders achieve reflection, apply practical models /theory, generate pragmatic options for intervention (check lists, tools, techniques, conversation practise, communication etc) and support clients in taking action to use these for real.

Learn more about…

  1. The importance of compassion in your leadership

  2. Reflective practise for leaders (in a crisis)

  3. Managing polarities and leading teams in lockdown

  4. Learning style preferences based on Honey, P. & Mumford, A. (1992) The Manual of Learning styles.

  5. Keeping resilient during the Coronavirus crisis

  6. What are the critical qualities leaders need to demonstrate in this VUCA World?

  7. A different but complementary perspective on leading transition

  8. Transition – My ‘Crossing the River’ model has evolved via my leadership development and coaching practice over 15 years and is inspired by the earlier work of Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions.


Dr Cameron Findlater is a leadership and organisational change /development facilitator and coach with 15 years’ experience across a broad range of sectors. Cameron’s earlier career experience included being a leader and manager during 14 years in the pharmaceutical industry with the leading multinational companies Lilly, GlaxoWellcome and AstraZeneca.


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