Leadership in Uncharted Waters – Covid-19

It is clear; we are in uncharted waters. The Covid-19 pandemic tests every leader’s character, competency, and determination, both personally and professionally. In these uncertain times of pandemic and political unrest, the only thing that we can be sure of is the unpredictability of world events. The ability to provide guidance and leadership during periodic business shutdowns and subsequent restarts is also proving challenging. The current operating environment’s uncertain nature means that leaders grapple with short-term disruptions and financial shortfalls and longer-term strategic impacts.

How Leaders Act Matters

An ancient proverb says that leaders are a lot like teabags; you don’t know what’s inside them until you put them in hot water. A person’s measure is not where they stand in comfort, but how they perform during hard-core adversity like we are currently experiencing. In times of crisis, if a leader is inherently fearful, that will come out, if they are egotistical, that will come out; if they genuinely care about others, that will undoubtedly be on display. 

Many poorly equipped leaders pushed the world to the brink throughout history, causing millions of deaths. These deaths were callously considered mere statistics and were just part of a global scorecard.  During this pandemic, people’s lives matter, and leaders cannot lose sight of their ability to lessen the human impact.

Having a fearful initial reaction to a crisis is expected; however, the ability to quickly move beyond that fear and potential self-centeredness is essential. True leaders fundamentally care about people and take responsibility for their employees and communities’ collective good from the onset. A leader who is slow in comprehending the facts, quick to sling blame, self-centered, or egotistical is extremely dangerous during crisis times. Leaders such as these should not be followed and do not deserve the people’s future trust or support.  

If a leader fails to show leadership upfront, it results in the need to execute in crisis management mode for an extended period. The inability to anticipate and prevent the crisis is the first place often means that crisis management is inevitable. Because this operation mode doesn’t occur very often, many leaders are caught flat-footed and need to learn as they go. During this “learn as you go” period, much pain and destruction can occur while ad-hoc processes, systems, and organizational structures are established.

Will your Organization Die, Survive or Thrive

Leadership is so important (especially in a crisis) because there is so much on the line. The life and death nature of this particular pandemic healthcare crisis and the potential economic ruin that results will fundamentally change people’s behavior and redefine many industries. While there is no way to insulate ourselves entirely from this healthcare and economic storm, there are principles and action plans that can help us decrease the impact, address immediate risks, stabilized our situations, and plan for the future. Will your business weather the storm?

Businesses that have a fundamental desire to help the nation and the world combat this pandemic and ease people’s pain and suffering during a time of sickness and isolation have the opportunity to thrive. When resources are scarce, imagination and creativity become the fundamental driver of resourcefulness.

This pandemic will have either a medical end or a social end. If there are proven therapeutics and an efficacious vaccine, then a medical conclusion is likely. The other way pandemics can end is when the cost of preventing the spread becomes untenable. In the latter scenario, our society will need to accept the increased health risks associated with returning to societal normalcy.

Determine What’s Important and Execute

During times of uncertainty, taking a “Next Best Action” approach is the best course of action to stabilize the situation until an overall strategy can be formulated. The initial reaction to the crisis often defines the trajectory of the outcome. The ability to act with purpose and direction to arrest control of the situation often enables the containment of the problem; however, operation in a damage control mode is often necessary for some period-of-time.

The ability to understand the situation and disseminate accurate information as quickly as possible is also critical. Demonstration of an intellectual command of the facts and confidence via a well-crafted communication strategy helps align the organization. Leaders that do not have these skills often need to consult and collaborate with a skilled and objective third-party to create appropriate messaging.  

While disaster situations are, by definition, emotionally charged, the ability to gain control over personal emotions and worries is critical. You cannot let personal fear cause an over-reaction that will prompt others to panic and become ineffective. Leaders need to conceal their fear and control their emotions. Acting in haste often makes the situation worst if decisions are driven only by emotional reaction and not logic.  

The ability to consult with experts and establish a core team to swarm the highest priority challenges is also critical. Having a central contact person to formulate an accurate assessment of the situation, advise on an appropriate action plan, and assure that the program executes effectively and efficiently is essential. During a prolonged crisis, leaders need to expand the team’s resources to avoid core team burn-out. If the situation is a pro-longed crisis, it is necessary to make sure that the initial team does not become overwhelmed, overly fatigued, or too narrowly focused on pressing details.

Lastly, the Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters representing danger and the other that representing opportunity. An emergency can frequently provide a chance to become stronger, build leadership capacity, or innovate in brand new directions. For many leaders, a crisis can be transformational and a tremendous time of growth that fundamentally changes their future trajectory and achievement of their destiny. Like the one we are experiencing, a massive crisis can catapult the human race forward by fueling creativity and accelerating science, medicine, and social change. By forcing us to focus on challenges outside the norm, new products, services, and medical safeguards will benefit future generations.  

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