Despite a host of warnings about the impending COVID-19 crisis, it caught most of us by surprise. I recall attending the regular leadership team meetings of a few of my clients the week of March 9th and by March 15th, the world had changed. It was no longer a potential crisis; it was a full-on global pandemic where new terms such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ became part of our lexicon. A spectrum of responses emerged from reactive chaos to deploying well-practiced business continuity modes.
The challenge that leaders face in a crisis is that their organizations aren’t typically set up to operate with such uncertainty. Leaders create visions, plans and metrics to attempt to control their environments and minimize uncertainty as best they can. In a crisis many leaders default to what they know how to do in order to reduce frustration and quell their own and others’ fears.[i] This default mode is simply not productive and rather than reduce uncertainty and anxiety it increases both.
Today all organizations are faced with a new normal—uncertainty and inability to control the environments in which they operate. We know the pandemic will end but it won’t truly be over until a vaccine is available. We know the ‘curve’ will eventually flatten but projections seem to change hourly. We know people will get back to work but we don’t know whether social distancing will continue to influence the economy. We know that remote work is possible on a broad scale but it’s not clear if this will work long-term.
Ralph Stacey and Douglas Griffin’s definition of a leader is one that lends itself to today’s environment: “One recognized as a leader has a greater capacity to live with the anxiety of not knowing and not being in control. The leader is recognized as having the courage to carry on interacting productively and creatively despite not knowing.”[ii] This definition certainly applies to today’s environment of tremendous uncertainty and great anxiety. Clearly there is much we don’t know about what the future will hold. It is also clear that leadership today requires an ability to embrace uncertainty and interact productively.
While it’s a relatively small sample size, we have been amazed by the approaches our clients have taken to navigate their way through these challenging times. None have had an easy time, and some were certainly more prepared than others, but most have quickly overcome their natural tendency to control and shifted to doing their best to operate in crisis mode. In each case a few important themes emerged for how to embrace the uncertainty – humility, transparency, engagement, focus, and patience.
Positive humility. In their own ways, each CEO acknowledged their fear about the unknown and that they didn’t have all the answers, but they exuded a sense of calmness and confidence in their organizations to work smart and hard to get through the crisis. By reinforcing and modeling positive humility CEOs have established a tone for their leadership teams to cascade throughout their organizations.
Transparency. CEOs and their leadership teams are proactively communicating difficult information openly and being clear when they don’t have answers to important questions. For example, they are not promising that no jobs will be lost but they are committing to pursuing all avenues necessary such as the SBA CARES Loans to secure jobs as long as possible.
Engagement. When in doubt these organizations are doing their best to negotiate clear expectations (i.e., daily check in sessions with supervisors) and over-communicate (i.e., using email, internal web site, and supervisors to reinforce that hourly workers will be paid weekly). They are also encouraging managers and staff to use multiple channels to remain in contact both formally and informally (i.e., Virtual Team Meetings, Virtual happy hours, random watercooler calls).
Focus. After a short period of getting their remote offices working, CEOs and their leadership teams redoubled their efforts to ensure their organizations remained focused on the core mission (i.e., executing loans, building interiors, registering / renewing members). They also reinforced that today’s plans would likely change tomorrow and that learning from mistakes and helping employees and customers manage uncertainty is a bit part of their jobs.
Patience. In a crisis adults often revert to overdone strengths – people who are naturally decisive might become arrogant or people who tend to be naturally empathetic might become overly protective. These CEOs and their leadership teams recognize this tendency to revert. They are working hard to have patience with each other by giving space, not overreacting themselves and providing gentle feedback.
These are extremely challenging times and despite efforts by the smartest scientists, economists and business leaders in the world there is no clear path to when things will get back to normal. Ambiguity is a daily obstacle for most business leaders but today we are dealing with ambiguity on steroids. It is not easy but we are so encouraged to see so many CEOs and their leadership teams embrace the ambiguity to help their organizations get to the other side of this crazy time.
[i] Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Mary Linsky, “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2009.
[ii] Ralph D. Stacey, “Complexity and Management: Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking?”, Routledge, 2000.