Three Ways To Emerge From The Pandemic Stronger Than Before

By seizing opportunities for empathy, simplification and innovation, we strengthen our organizations, our teams and ourselves.

In 1952, a comet streaked across the sky and captured the world’s imagination. It was the de Havilland Comet, the first commercial jet airplane. Smooth, quiet and comfortable, the Comet broke speed records everywhere it went. Its debut held the promise of a bright future for mass aviation. What could go possibly go wrong?

Plenty. Within a year, three Comets broke apart mid-flight and fell from the skies, killing everyone on board. The cause of these tragic accidents was an enigma. After years of testing, the root cause was discovered to be a new problem, which was named “metal fatigue.”

The Comet crisis spurred David Warren, an Australian researcher, to invent a device to record cockpit noise and instrument readings. Warren’s device, called a “Flight Memory Unit” was the prototype of what’s now known as the “Black Box”. Black Box technology revolutionized the airline industry and helped make air travel the safest mode of transportation ever since.

In 1959, John F. Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters—one represents danger and one represents opportunity.” Finding the silver lining is a uniquely human skill. No matter what the field, we can all make lemonade out of lemons. Massive oil embargo? Invent solar panel technology. Angioplasty balloons fail? Develop the heart stent. Second world war? Create the United Nations.

The Covid-19 crisis is no exception. Since March, the pandemic has motivated a widespread killing of sacred cows. For example, in the cargo shipping business, the practice of requiring a hand signed paper bill of lading had been enforced since Roman times. Yet, within one week, signatures went electronic. In the grocery business, keeping up with crushing demand has abolished the age-old practice of requiring multiple levels of approval for large purchases.

It’s not just industries that are pivoting. You’ve been adapting daily. Everyone work from home? Sure, no problem. You and your team have patched together new ways of working. You’ve built new norms to establish what’s strangely starting to feel like the “new normal.” From the gallery view of your Zoom screen, everyone seems to be coping.

To cope is one thing, but to thrive is another. How can you make the best of this bad situation? If experience is the best teacher, we’re all currently paying tuition in the school of life.  What leadership lessons are you learning today that you can apply tomorrow?

At some point in the future, this crisis will subside. There will be no going back to the way things were. In its place, you’ll need to move forward to create the “new new normal.”  What do you want that normal to look like?

I’ve posed that question to dozens of leaders around the world since March and asked them to share what they’ve learned. What themes are they seeing to help them navigate both the pandemic and post-pandemic worlds?

My findings suggest that there are three key areas of opportunity that leaders would be wise to invest in:

1. Develop empathy

This worldwide health crisis has shown us just how vulnerable and interconnected we all are. All over our planet, four billion people are shut in at home to try keep our society safe. It’s been a wake-up call for a heightened appreciation of our shared humanity.

If trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, this pandemic certainly qualifies. It’s impacting everyone on physical, emotional, financial, social and psychological levels. While we’re all in the same storm, we’re not all in the same boat. As such, different people are processing the experience in different ways.

Leaders are finding that to respond those around you, you don’t need to be a licensed psychologist. You only need to be an empathic human. Empathy—listening to people, showing them you understand them and care how they feel—is a key ingredient in fostering resilience. It’s about putting relationships before task, and people over profit.  Empathy it for people is like water is for plants. When it’s present, growth happens. When it’s neglected, things wither.

While this may be obvious during a crisis, it’s also true the rest of the time. We always want to be listened to. We always prefer leaders who understand us and care how we feel. What if results and relationships could become a both/and instead of an either/or proposition? What would it take to make being “exceptionally human” a regular part of the new new normal?

2. Simplify

46 behavioral competencies. 58 key performance indicators. 73 strategic priorities. Sound familiar? They’re all symptoms of the overwhelming complexity. For many organizations, drowning in this complexity was business as usual.

Enter Covid-19. There’s nothing like a crisis to reveal what’s truly important. Pressing pause has given everyone a chance to take a breath and see that if everything is important, nothing is important.

Technically speaking, you really can only have one priority. What’s the one thing that needs to be addressed? Your team is looking for a simple point of focus. Pete, the owner of a small business, gave his company a rallying cry: What can we do to keep the lights on and not lay anyone off? They co-created a workable solution.

People may put up with unnecessary complexity in regular times, they can’t right now. They don’t have the bandwidth. They’re moonlighting as homeschool teachers, chefs-in-residence, live-in housekeepers, and more. There’s not much space left for meaningless busy work.

Many leaders have been struck with how many items on their teams’ February and March to-do lists have fallen away without making a sound.  The need-to-haves became nice-to-haves, and nice-to-haves went up in smoke. We may have tolerated lousy meetings in person, but poorly run meetings are even worse on Zoom.

You don’t need a crisis to notice all the needless complexity you’ve been tolerating for so long. But it sure helps. Why not simplify today, so you can get to the work that really matters tomorrow?

3. Nurture a climate of innovation

Innovation is about making things better by doing them in a new or different way. It’s also easier said than done. My colleague Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink, says “The only thing more resistant to change than a human being is a company.” In normal times, as companies mature, their systems and processes calcify to maintain the status quo.

When the gale-force winds of crisis blow in, those hardened structures either bend or break.  Very quickly, we come face to face with what works, and what doesn’t. Necessity becomes the mother of adaptation.

We reinvent, retool, and redeploy. Hotels lodge frontline health care workers.  Sports uniform manufacturers make medical masks. Talk show hosts broadcast from home. The list of total innovations created over the last two months could make your head spin.

It’s common practice for large organizations to bring in external consultants. Their outside eye offers a fresh perspective with recommendations to shake things up for the better. Covid-19 has accomplished the same goal. It’s forced us all to take a break from business as usual, and step back to reevaluate what we do and how we do it.

Smart leaders are enrolling people to innovative en masse. Collectively, they’re using this time to clarify problems, generate ideas, and develop and implement solutions. By making creative problem solving everyone’s business, they’re finding opportunities to innovate that have been hiding in plain sight.  Why not nurture this same innovative climate once you get to leave the house and go back to the office?

We don’t choose our crises—our crises choose us. No one would have chosen to put “global pandemic” on their Q1 & Q2 2020 to-do list. Yet, while didn’t choose this, we do have a choice in how we respond. We can choose to put our heads down and wait for it to end. Or, like David Warren with his black box, we can look for the silver lining. We can seize these opportunities for empathy, simplification and innovation—and make the best lemonade around. In doing so, we strengthen our organizations, our teams and ourselves.

Alain Hunkins
Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders (Wiley, March 2020) is a sought-after speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach. Over his twenty-year career, Alain has designed and facilitated seminars on numerous leadership topics, including teambuilding, communication, peak performance, innovation, and change. His clients include Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Citigroup, IBM, General Motors, and Microsoft