For those in leadership positions, the COVID-19 pandemic remains an unprecedented challenge. As we navigate the new normal for ourselves and for our loved ones, we carry the added responsibility of steering our organizations through uncertain times.
In times of crisis the need for leadership comes into sudden, clear focus — and, by the same token, a lack of leadership becomes impossible to miss. Our decisions will not only make or break a company, but have direct and lasting effects on people’s lives.
At Thrive Global, our team has been in many conversations with company leaders from a range of industries. What we’ve heard has only amplified the results of Thrive’s survey of 5,000 Americans: people are craving strong leadership and clear communication. Nearly 85% of employees wish they knew more small, actionable ways to thrive during these challenging times.
What is clear is that we are at an inflection point for leaders. But meeting the challenges of navigating the new normal isn’t just about looking out; it’s about looking in. What’s missing from our conversation is how leaders need to show up ready to lead from what is best, wisest, most creative and empathetic in them.
If ever there was a moment demanding a new leadership playbook, this is it.
The first step is a mindset shift — away from the misguided belief that in urgent times leaders need to be always on and drive themselves into burnout in order to meet the challenges. In fact, the opposite is true. When what leaders are required to do is expertly manage the status quo, this may work. But in times of deep uncertainty like this, in order for leaders to be able to see the icebergs ahead and recognize the hidden opportunities they need to find a way to get themselves into the metaphorical eye of the hurricane — that centered place of strength, wisdom and peace which we all have inside ourselves. This was the place that Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome for 19 years — facing plagues, invasions and betrayals — described in his book Meditations (the only leadership book I have by my nightstand!). Because only from that place can we come up with our most innovative and creative ideas that the times demand. What is expected of leaders is judgment, not sheer stamina.
Here are some of the key insights for leadership in the age of COVID that will help leaders move from awareness to action.
Putting our own oxygen mask on first
There’s a reason why airline attendants always instruct us that, in the case of emergency, we’ll be most able to help others if we secure our own oxygen masks first. When we accept that it’s the quality — not the quantity — of our decisions that really matters right now, it’s easier to see the stakes of the impaired decision making that comes from not taking time to recharge. Athletes were the first to recognize that recovery is an essential part of peak performance. The same is true for the less athletically gifted among us: we can’t perform at our best if we forgo sleep, overindulge in stress eating, soothe our anxiety and uncertainty with alcohol or — does this sound too familiar? — forget to take even a minute to move between back-to-back Zoom meetings.
When we do take care of ourselves, we see benefits to our physical and mental health, performance and productivity. When we don’t, we pay a price: innovation, creativity, resilience, empathy, decision-making and team building are the first to disappear when we are burned out and depleted.
One of my favorite comments came from Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s Chief Human Resources Officer. Ellyn shared that she had been struggling with her decision to take a daily walk, feeling that it took her away from her responsibilities. So she reframed this feeling: instead of viewing her walk as self-indulgent, she came to see it as a way to recharge herself — and as a result make better decisions and be a better leader. In other words, her walks are not just for her.
We need to count our successes more than we count our failures
In unprecedented times, with high stakes, it’s common to dwell on our failures and on our mistakes. It’s easy to listen to what I call the “obnoxious roommate” living in our head. Instead, we need to tune out our obnoxious roommate and focus on our successes.
This is hard, because our brains have a negative bias. We’re working against the habenula, the “anti-reward” part of our brain that tracks our failures and mistakes.
When everything is urgent, nothing is prioritized
In times of crisis like now, it’s all the more important to establish clear priorities and relentlessly ask ourselves what matters most. This means differentiating between true urgency and false urgency. One key filter is constantly reminding ourselves that “business as usual” no longer applies. If something was a priority before the crisis, calling out that it can be discarded or tabled because it may no longer be a priority can be one of the best leadership decisions we can make.
Problems should be solved at the lowest level of the organization
There are lots of stories about people hoarding right now: food, supplies and, of course, the new bitcoin of the realm, toilet paper. For leaders one of the worst things to hoard is decisions. We need to audit our decision-making and ask: which of these decisions can be made at a lower part of the organization?
Delegation is key, but first we have to build our team of support
Individuals can’t always be on, but teams can. Leadership means resisting the “hero mentality” — the idea that “if I want it done right, I have to do it myself.” Instead, it’s about building strong, sustainable teams that allow each individual the chance to recharge in order to be their best.
Role-model and practice compassionate directness
How we communicate has to reflect the realities of what people are dealing with. Now more than ever, we need to connect with people in a personal way. This means daily check-ins. It means starting every conversation with simple, direct questions, like, “How are you?” “How is your family?” “Any developments since yesterday?” We must give people room to share what otherwise might be kept private — maybe they’re having trouble getting food or prescription deliveries or worrying about their parents’ health. Before we even begin to talk about business, we need to open the door to these conversations in authentic, compassionate ways, and keep that door open.
In times of physical distancing, connecting with others has never been more important.
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