The last 16-plus months have been grueling for company leaders and employees alike. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our lives, our work, and the very ways we do business. Some of us have lost friends or family to the virus. We have all done our best to stay safe at home and sane while managing our kids’ lives as well as our own and keeping our businesses afloat. With a lack of clarity about how best to move forward, continually changing parameters, needing to maintain safe social distancing, and an incredibly deadly virus threatening our lives and livelihoods, the pandemic puts into stark contrast just how important it is to have solid leadership and coping skills.
While some leaders failed spectacularly during the pandemic so far, others have truly thrived and managed to navigate the fraught waters with grace, aplomb, and humility, putting workforces first and ensuring that everyone with ties to their companies or countries remained safe and healthy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man [or woman] is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” That quote has never rung more true than it has over the last several months. During this time, leaders have learned what it really means to guide a company and employees through a frightening, trying, difficult period. Here are five inspiring leaders who’ve set fantastic examples throughout the pandemic.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
When the coronavirus hit New Zealand, Prime Minister Ardern took immediate steps to protect her people, steps which proved to be both prescient and compassionate. On March 21, just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Ardern made an eight-minute speech on national television that clearly outlined a tiered system and gave specific guidelines on how the government would respond to the growing pandemic. It was modeled on the fire risk system that’s already regularly used in New Zealand, which meant that the public was already familiar with it.
While that all sounds well and good, what is most remarkable about Prime Minister Ardern’s response is that at the time, New Zealand had just 52 confirmed cases of coronavirus, but Ardern set the warning at level 2. That move garnered her criticism from her peers, but a few days later, when the outbreak bloomed to more than 200 cases, she raised the alert level to 4, and the public recognized that she had acted with caring and honesty. A national poll taken a few days later pinned her approval rating at 80%.
What was so inspiring about Prime Minister Ardern’s response? Despite the fact that she didn’t know (nor did anyone else) just how bad the virus would get, she acted decisively, and she leveraged a familiar system to let the public know that things could (and likely would) escalate. Even though she was facing down tremendous uncertainty (just like the rest of us), she acted from a place of compassion and unified the country against the coronavirus in a clear way, even though the threat was still very nebulous.
Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association
Adam Silver’s decision to cancel the 2020 basketball season on March 11, 2020, may have seemed extreme at the time. Yet it happened on the same day that the World Health Organization announced that we were facing a pandemic—and his quick response was the first (outside of China) that likely ended up saving millions of lives.
No basketball games meant there would be no jam-packed stadiums with thousands of people shoulder-to-shoulder, cheering on their favorite teams. It meant that those people wouldn’t take the deadly virus home to their families and loved ones and infect them. It also meant that other major sports organizations carefully considered their next move and took a measured response. The National Hockey League canceled their season, as did Major League Baseball, following the NBA’s lead. Even the Boston Marathon was rescheduled as a result of Silver’s move.
While it meant tons of lost revenue for the franchises and the league, Silver made a decision to prioritize the safety of the public, the teams, and the supporting staff. It was a bold (and risky) move in a highly uncertain time, but in the long run, it saved lives.
Brian Cornell, CEO, Target
The retail company Target comes in second on the Forbes list of top employer responses to the pandemic because of its thoughtful and safe approach to managing its stores, staff, and customers during the pandemic. When the pandemic began to surge, Target’s shelves were often bare of the essentials (toilet paper, paper towels, bleach, etc.), as people panic-bought items and stockpiled them. Yet Target remained transparent with its customers, rolled out pay hikes and expanded benefits for its staff, and made their cleaning and protection protocols more robust for both staff and customers by installing plexiglass at checkout counters and closely monitoring the number of customers in their stores—and the company contributed to relief funds. They also provided staff with high-quality gloves and masks so they too could remain safe while at work.
Cornell’s work was compassionate, open, and honest, offering both staff and shoppers some comfort knowing that the company was following the science and doing its best to support everyone involved in its ecosystem.
Mark Aslett, CEO, Mercury Systems
While Mercury Systems isn’t a household company name, CEO Mark Aslett topped Glassdoor’s list of the Highest Rated CEOs During the COVID-19 Crisis, and he says, in this Forbes piece, that his past experiences helped him navigate the pandemic. Aslett is currently CEO of the aerospace and defense electronics company Mercury Systems, but he started his career in the shipyards in Sunderland, England. He told Forbes that he vividly recalls seeing the suffering and deep economic impact that the 1984 strike had on the men he was working with. As he said in the interview, “It really stayed with me that if I was in a position to be able to take care of employees and their families, it would be the right thing to do.”
When the pandemic hit, he went into action, freezing all layoffs and terminations, and set up a $1 million COVID relief program to support employees and their families. He also gave hourly on-site employees $150 monthly of Uber Eats credit so they could order food while at work.
Aslett’s response was thoughtful and based on his own past experiences, which shows plenty of emotional intelligence, an incredibly valuable trait in a well-respected and strong leader. He leveraged his past knowledge and experiences to help lessen the load on his staff and keep the company running. His work through the pandemic earned him high praise from the most valuable folks: his employees.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
Like other female politicians who have excelled as we navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has proven her mettle as she’s led Germany through the pandemic. Merkel has long been known as pragmatic, analytic, and thoughtful in her approach to governing. While she’s no stranger to controversy, her scientific training and background helped her manage the unknowable path of the coronavirus through her country. While many often criticized her in the past for her unsentimental governing approach, in the months of lockdown and as the pandemic has continued to run its course, Merkel showed her prowess as both a practical scientist and an emotional human being. Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and her approach to managing the pandemic and the economic impact of the devastating virus has been, as The Atlantic calls it, rigorous and honest in the face of unknowable consequences. She continues to urge vaccination and caution that Germany, like the rest of the world, is not out of the woods yet when it comes to defeating the deadly coronavirus bug.
Merkel’s response has been solidly scientific at the same time that she’s been honest, open, and even compassionate. Her leadership has shown that even the most logical approaches benefit from emotional intelligence and thoughtful research.
Key Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn from These Strong Leaders
We can learn plenty of lessons from our collective experience navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, but by looking to these stellar leaders who leveraged both their own experiences and a foundation of scientific knowledge, business leaders can continue to evolve their leadership skills to better prepare to take on any future challenges that will arise as a result of COVID-19 or as a result of any multitude of possible future global events—like climate change—that could rock our world.
Leaders need to take lessons from this pandemic to understand how best to respond to these challenges with compassion, honesty, openness, logic, and strength. By taking a close look at how each of these leaders have navigated and continued to manage the ongoing pandemic, business leaders can learn how best to forge a path ahead with as much clarity and acuity as possible in these uncertain times.
The truth is that, even though offices and schools are beginning to open once again, and life is slowly returning to some semblance of normal, the rise of new variants like Delta means that we are far from being completely out of the woods anytime soon. In Austin, we’ve recently returned to stage 4 protocols as cases have spiked once again because of a low vaccination rate. That means masking and social distancing are here to stay, and leaders need to consider what (a likely) further escalation means for the longevity of their business, as well as the health of their employees and families.
The moment leaders let their guard down and assume that just because we’re vaccinated, we have beaten this deadly bug is the moment that we need to be most vigilant. Taking the lessons that these leaders have imparted with their thoughtful and science-based approach to managing through the pandemic serves as a fantastic springboard and learning platform for other leaders looking to keep their businesses, employees, and families safe and sustained in the long term.