Leading Through Covid-19 (What I’m Reading)

IMatt Shenk 1

Photo by Matthew Shenk, Lancaster, PA

“The darkest hour is just before dawn” – English theologian, Thomas Fuller

“It’s always something” – Gilda Radner as Roseann Rosannadanna

A Ten-Alarm VUCA!

How many of you were starting 2020, optimistic, full of hope, with great plans – both personally and professionally – that seemed well within reach?  How many of you are still on that path?  How many of you included “reinvent my organization’s business model” on you to-do list for 2020?

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) are causes and by-products of breakdowns.  Breakdowns are an interruption to the anticipate flow of life – when events don’t go as planned.  COVID-19 has been a ten-alarm breakdown with ten-alarm VUCA.

Early in the pandemic, I heard people talking – almost wishing – about “going back to normal” and figuring out the “right thing” to do to move forward.  Both of these are based on emotional reactions to the unanticipated events.  Effective leadership recognizes we’re not “going back” to anything, but have an opportunity to “move forward” into something that we can help influence (“There are people who make things happen, watch things happen, and wonder, ‘what happened?’ .”  Which one are you?)

Since VUCA has no “textbook” answer to solve the many ramifications it presents, there is no “right answer.”  There are only experiments to see what works and what doesn’t.  Making decisions to try experiments is one way to address VUCA.  Looking for “the right answer” only adds a heavy emotional weight on the leader.

Based on the stage of development (Reactive Mind or Creative Mind), the leader facing the breakdowns and VUCA of a pandemic either thinks it’s solely up to him or her to come up with the answer (Reactive) or that it’s up to him or her to build a team of committed leaders who can collectively collaborate to create the experiments that will enable the organization to navigate the breakdowns and VUCA and create a new normal that will allow the organization to continue to thrive (Creative).

What Do I Do If There’s No “Right” Answer?

While there are no “right” answers to the breakdowns we’re experiencing, there are incredibly well-written, thoughtful articles that I’ve been reading in Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, and McKinsey & Company’s on-line and print publications.

In this post, I’d like to share some of what I’ve found to be the best thinking to help you navigate this VUCA world we’re experiencing.

What Leaders Can Do

We see examples of leadership every day, at every level of government, and in every organization – good and bad

  1. “What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic” https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic
    • Profiles NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s, responses to the pandemic
    • When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders to delay action and downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer
    • Leaders must act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course – not assigning blame – is the way to lead through these situations
    • Four lessons
      • Act with urgency
      • Communicate with transparency
      • Respond productively to missteps
      • Engage in constant updating
  2. “Are You Leading Through the Crisis … or Managing the Response?” https://hbr.org/2020/03/are-you-leading-through-the-crisis-or-managing-the-response
    • Crises require executives to both lead and manage effectively.
      • Addressing the urgent needs of the present is the work of management
      • Leading involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome of this arc of time
    • Four Leadership Traps
      • Taking a narrow view
      • Getting seduced by managing
      • Over-centralizing the response
      • Forgetting the human factors
  3. “Lead Your Business Through the Coronavirus Crisis” https://hbr.org/2020/02/lead-your-business-through-the-coronavirus-crisis
    • Update intelligence on a daily basis
    • Beware of hype cycles/news cycles
    • Don’t assume that information creates informedness
    • Use experts and forecasts carefully
    • Constantly reframe you understanding of what’s happening
    • Beware of bureaucracy
    • Make sure your response is balanced
    • Use resilience principles in developing policies
    • Prepare now for the next crisis
    • Intellectual preparation is not enough
    • Reflect on what you’ve learned
    • Prepare for a changed world

How and What We Communicate Matters

  1. “A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19” https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/a-leaders-guide-communicating-with-teams-stakeholders-and-communities-during-covid-19
    • Give people what they need, when they need it – ask them
    • Communicate clearly, simply, frequently
    • Choose candor over charisma
    • Revitalize resilience
    • Distill meaning from chaos


Self-Care is Not An Option

Self- care for leaders is the top priority. (If you don’t, you won’t be in shape to do the important work that only you can do)

  1. “How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis” https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/how-to-demonstrate-calm-and-optimism-in-a-crisis
    • Leading and learning outside your comfort zone
      • Deliberate calm: how to steer into the storm. …
      • Bounded optimism: How to mix confidence and hope with realism. …
    • Six steps for leaders
      • Adapt your personal operating model. …
        • Your priorities
        • Your roles
        • Your time
        • Your energy
      • Set your intention. …
      • Regulate your reactions. …
      • Practice reflection. …
      • Reframe your perspective. …
      • Manage your energy
  2. “Building your resilience” https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
    • Resiliency – the ability to absorb a shock and come out of it better than others; the ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
    • Strategies for Building Resilience
      • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. …
      • Accept that change is a part of living. …
      • Move toward your goals. …
      • Take decisive actions. …
      • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. …
      • Nurture a positive view of yourself. …
      • Keep things in perspective. …
      • Maintain a hopeful outlook.

Make Considered Decisions

Decision-making is more difficult, but not impossible, and must be done purposefully, intentionally, with a sense of urgency.  Waiting can be catastrophic.

  1. “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision” https://hbr.org/2011/06/the-big-idea-before-you-make-that-big-decision
    • Ask yourself:
      • Is there any reason to suspect errors motivated by self-interest?
      • Has the team fallen in love with its proposal?
      • Were there dissenting opinions and were they explored adequately?
    • Challenge the recommenders:
      • Could the diagnosis be overly influenced by an analogy to a memorable success?
      • Are credible alternatives included along with the recommendation?
      • If you had to make this decision again in a year’s time, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now?
      • Do you know where the numbers came from? Unsubstantiated?   Extrapolation from history?  A motivation to use a certain anchor?
      • Is the team assuming that a person, organization, or approach that is successful in one area will be just as successful in another?
      • Are the recommenders overly attached to a history of past decisions?
    • Evaluate by asking about the proposal
      • Is the base case overly optimistic?
      • Is the worst case bad enough?
      • Is the recommending team overly cautious?
  2. “How to Make Better Decisions about Coronavirus” https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-make-better-decisions-about-coronavirus/
    • Some cognitive biases that affect decision-making
      • Status quo – the current state of affairs is best and anything different would be a loss
      • Political – how closely political views correlate with opinions about other issues, such as coronavirus
      • Confirmation – we search for a pay more heed to information that supports our own views
      • Availability heuristic – availability of information may shine light on atypical factors and may make us overlook more important patterns
      • Framing – how the issue to be decided is framed
      • Bandwagon – various ideas rising and falling in what dominates the situation
      • Hostile attribution – when others don’t agree with us in a time of high stress, we tend to attribute hostile intent to them, which raises everyone’s stress levels
      • Neglect of probability – many people are uncomfortable with probabilistic thinking and have a strong preference for absolute judgments
      • Normalcy – belief that things will continue to go as they have gone in the past, which leads to an unwillingness or inability to plan for unforeseen circumstances

Matt Shenk 2

Photo by Matthew Shenk, Lancaster, PA

Maybe it’s not totally clear what the path is for your leadership, your organization, or your life, but one thing is certain – you have the ability within you to shape this future into an alignment with your purpose and the vision you have for your organization and those you serve.  More than anything, people are longing for great – even good – leadership in these uncertain time.  Maybe that could start with you continuing to hone your leadership skills and encourage that other leaders in your organization step up their games, too.

One thing’s for sure – there will be “an end” to this and a “new beginning.”  We just don’t know when.

© Geoff Davis, 5/8/20

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