What Leaders Can Learn From The Front Lines

In the ER, short-term decisions are made reflexively so as to get to the luxury of crafting long-term strategies for health and well being. The same should be true for our companies.

It continues to be core-rattling that a species-jumping virus can do so much damage to human life and at the same time to worldwide commerce. The pain is incalculable, so is the impact on the world economy.

In some parts of the world, as in some areas of our country, the peak seems to be behind us. Some countries are reemerging from their quarantine and economic shutdown and now there is a major effort here in the U.S. to get back to work, to orderly restart our once robust economy, to reclaim our businesses. What will the post-COVID period look like? How will employees be re-engaged? Where will they work? What has changed in the consumer psyche? How will sectors and geographies and industries be jump-started? How will business leaders lead? What examples exist now to help us lead? I would suggest that immediately relevant examples are not found in theory. Not from theorists, but from CEOs who are doing it, now. The case studies, the text books, the self-help books have not yet been written. But, we are writing on the fly.

In some ways, we have been given a virtual white board in front of us to reimagine our futures. A not-so-gentle nudge that change is happening now. In some ways, we have been given time to re-think, to re-skin our businesses. To learn, or relearn, what leadership in crisis is. What leadership outside of crisis is. What do we want our businesses to look like, to perform like after this shutdown is behind us? What have we learned? The time we are being given, as painful as it is, might just prove to be positive in the end. Our companies might become better and be better lead. We might emerge as more thoughtful, more caring, more collaborative, more inspirational, more innovative and more prepared for a next period of chaos in whatever form it chooses to present itself.

We might realize that some of what worked before this economic paralysis might not work as we begin moving forward again. We just might be moving toward a new goalpost, a new reality. Reliance on history might hold little application for our future normal. As we lead forward , we might just be able to learn a bit from those who are leading now, today, on the front lines, the people who are learning as they go about this virus, the disease it causes, its lifecycle and learning how to maintain many multiples of  lives simultaneously in the face of this virulent pathogen and get beyond this illness. Leadership under extreme adversity.

In a sense, businesses that were robustly performing and healthy before this pandemic continue to have healthy fundamentals but are on life support because they are revenue starved. Our companies are our patients. Some have retained their employees, some have unfortunately not been able to do so. Some business sectors have been turned down so far that they are barely breathing. Some have been temporarily slowed from their fast-paced growth experienced only a few weeks ago. This has been a rapidly occurring business illness. What can we learn, what can we take from the front line to rehabilitate our companies, to secure their pulse and spring them back to full function, to their “novel” normal?

The health of the company needs to be assessed now, stat as referred to in medical practice, while we are in this critical time and before we exit the pandemic. How has the country changed? What change does this bring about for our company? How have our stakeholders, our shareholders, our consumers changed at their core? We need to understand this at a visceral level. Don’t look at past behaviors to predict the future, not this time. Know what new behaviors, needs, attitudes, predispositions exist now and try to predict what behaviors will be maintained, which have and will change, what is going to be critical for long-term success. Traditional research won’t do it. Predictive, cultural anthropologic societal observation and assessment combined with behavioral economics will help to inform us.

As CEOS continue to lead their companies forward to the levels of healthiness experienced before the world shut down, just as with the first responders managing patients’ lives, this is not a one man or one woman job. It is not a job for isolationists, not for closed-door managers. Cooperation, collaboration, communication, agility will be the building blocks of team DNA. The teams need to imagine the challenges of restarting—of opening the doors of the company and creating the orderly path forward. The effort is everyone’s responsibility. The results belong to everyone. Like in the ERs around the country whose emergency teams are performing their life-giving tasks with rhythmic and laser-focused precision and with just one goal in mind, life, the appointed teams resuscitating our corporations must be working with a cooperative fluidity, positive perspective and laser focus like never before.

Communication and collaboration are crucial to corporate life. Among team members mapping the future of the company, between teams, from the CEO leaders and to every stakeholder. The people we lead deserve and need to be informed. This is not business as it was. This is business as it is “going to be” and we are all learning on the job, just like the over-stressed healthcare providers on the front lines every minute of every day. Our people need to feel part of the successes that are being choreographed and performed. Communicate the plan to reach our goalposts and communicate often. Light and life are at the end of the tunnel and we are all going to get to that end. If we are successful. If we learn, change and evolve from the teachings of the shutdown. This is business Darwinism.

Leaders need to inspire thru their words, their tone, their actions. We have always known this, but it has never been so important as now as we plan our exit from this economic challenge. Leaders of medical systems talk daily to their staff who are in the thick of suffering every minute of their day, leaders who are seeing, feeling, tasting and living the chaos along with their teams, witnessing the rhythmic cooperation between practitioners, between their ER and ICU teams who are trying to maintain lives, most times successful, sometimes not, experiencing exhaustion and who address their people with calm, realistic, affirming, grateful, proud yet humble words. They are in crisis yet they are calmed. That’s leadership. People go head first into battle with that kind of authentically grateful leadership. And this, make no mistake, is a battle. There is much to learn from talking with these healthcare system CEOs, listening to these leaders in their minute-by-minute battle to sustain life, to get everyone to their new existence, to the other side we so often hear about. Do these learnings apply to business leadership? Sure do. There is going to be a new, serial and complimentary collaboration among and between companies, developing go-to-business adjacencies more strategically and frequently than ever in our past business environment. Similar to once competing hospital systems, now collaborating with one another to better handle their current and various challenges. Collaboration is the lubricant that will reduce future business friction.

And, just as in the ER, where there are many short-term decisions that are reflexively taken to get to the ability, to the luxury of crafting long-term strategies for health and well being, we need to take a close look at this as business leaders and determine if we wish to always be managing solely for short-term results or, do we want the short-term decisions to inform and power long-term strategies? Those that might cost a bit more, but that will sustain our companies, our stakeholders and shareholders long beyond our leadership tenure. Strategies that will create a more robust preparedness for our companies than that which we are currently experiencing in our hospitals. This is not a criticism, who could have anticipated this pandemic? But, this new understanding will recalibrate our planning for future events. We have one opportunity to observe this without bias, to use this time and these unexpected circumstances and learnings to prepare for our future, to be different, to look different. To be prepared. To be the company our constituencies want to work for and purchase from.

Regarding preparedness, how might we gain more control of and visibility into our corporate supply chain? What can we bring into closer proximity? Preparedness and supply immediacy are now synonymous. What would this cost; for long term viability, are these costs palatable and acceptable today even though they weren’t just several weeks ago? Think of the hospital’s supply chain; what emergency decisions have been taken and costs incurred just to get the essentials of their trade? Do we think that will change after this pandemic? You bet! Change will be reimagined in every supply chain across every industry. Preparedness is the new long-term cost-efficiency; being prepared far outweighs the cost of not being prepared in the long term. The responsibility for this operational change rests at the CEO level with oversight from the board. Preparedness will become a defining factor of leadership. It will cascade over to corporate and employee safety and security.

While the fundamentals of our pre-pandemic businesses were of unparalleled strength, what must we do differently, how must we act to be as strong, resilient, agile and even more relevant to our constituency when our circuit breakers are flipped, when the lights come back up and we begin doing business in a world whose behavioral dynamics are different than those we have ever experienced in our careers? What will we look like? Will we look new and refreshed from what we’ve learned thru this near-disastrous time? What can we be doing now to assure our new relevance? We have this time to be thinking. To be reflective and to plan. To be looking within and defining our new true north. To be leading and inspiring thru this time.

I‘m hopeful. I see change at the challenge’s end. I sense a new and invigorated normal. A great future for our companies and our economy. Don’t rely on our past performance to predict our future. Live fully in our present situation and predict from here and from what we are learning and taking away from this time of forced withdrawal. The best way to predict your future is to create it.

And, watch closely the people who are in the cross-hairs of maintaining lives every day in the face of unparalleled adversity, challenges greater than those the virus has dealt our companies. Participative leadership, rather than management behind closed doors, is what is called for. What we learn might just make our resurgence somewhat easier and more sustainable.