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Coronavirus: How will YOU lead in this crisis?

Updated: Mar 17, 2020


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There are lessons here––lessons that we can apply in our leadership roles today. You might run you run the night shift at your local convenience store, or you might be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. People are looking for leadership right now––and we’ve got to step up.

Blame is destructive in a crises…

I don’t care what bumper sticker you have on your car. I appreciate the fact that we’re in the home stretch of an election cycle, but it’s sickening how politicians have been cashing-in on this situation for marketing opportunities and personal gain.

Take care not to blame in your own leadership practice. It’s easy to do in these situations. Work the problem––there will be plenty of challenges coming as this thing unfolds.

It’s perfectly understandable to blame the government, for example, for the effect these new edicts will have on your business. Believe me, I’ve had my moments over the past few days too––but it won’t get us anywhere.

Identify the impact. Focus on solutions and work-arounds. Face the problem head on. Save the blame for another day.

Leadership is sharing. A leader shares.

In this situation, people’s lives are at stake––and I’m not just talking about the threat from the illness itself.

What if––just for a week or two––candidates put aside their rivalries. If you’ve got a plan––share it. With all the usually rhetoric about “reaching across party lines” and “bi-partisan” leadership, what if our leaders laid down their swords and held a joint “all-hands” meeting to share ideas and come up with a plan.

What an amazing sight it would be to see Trump, Biden and Sanders standing with McConnell, Pelosi and Schumer giving a joint report on a plan they developed together.

Meanwhile, there's nothing preventing us from sharing in our own leadership practice today. And one of the most important thing we can share as people become more worried is our calm, focused leadership. Let's find every opportunity to work together and share resources to help us all get through this successfully.

Get people involved…at all levels…

I believe President Trump made a mistake when he rolled out the international travel ban. I appreciate the pressure he's under––we all share that pressure. This is not a political commentary. Rather there is a lesson here.

I'm not questioning the ban––but rather the way it was implemented and announced. He and his team had to do some scrambling to clarify details immediately after the speech and plenty of people are still confused today.

European leaders are responding with outrage. Not about the ban necessarily––but about the fact that they never saw it coming. Now they should have––we’ll save that for later. But the President could have and should have at the very least given them a “heads-up.” A better plan would have been to reach out directly to at least a couple of allies to see if they could have either come up with an alternative, or presented a united front.

Organizers of big events, particular sports leagues are making exactly the same mistake. SXSW suddenly cancelled. The NBA just shut down its season. March Madness is going forward with no fans.

On the surface, it seems like remarkable leadership. After all, isn’t the health and safety of fans paramount? Almost all the commentary so far centered on the sacrifice being made by owners and the financial ramifications to teams, advertisers and broadcasters.

This attitude ignores the fact that the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people depend on these events. No fans means the people who grill your hot dogs and pick up your mess after the game are out of work. Local restaurants live and die on the traffic produced by these events. The list goes on and on.

And it’s not limited to sports and entertainment. Major conferences and conventions are shutting down all over the country. Colleges are cancelling spring semesters.

In a strange twist of fate, some students here in my home state of Maine are angry. They suddenly realize that Maine, to this point, is free of the virus. These students are being sent home to viral hot-spots and lock-down zones. They’re saying they’d be safer to shelter in place.

Very quickly, people out of work translates to people unable to pay bills. And I mean big ones: mortgages, rent, car payments. Owners of empty restaurants can’t pay rent either––and they lay people off.

With nearly half of American workers living paycheck to paycheck, it’s not going to take long to feel this effect.

Hopefully, financial institutions will step up and provide leadership by putting a hold on payments and collection procedures. Otherwise, we’ll have to look to government to impose measures similar to what’s happening in Italy.

Now what if leaders involved people at all levels before imposing these sudden and draconian measures? We still might be cancelling events and closing colleges, but people might have come up with some reasonable alternatives. Good ideas might have come from the front lines about how to help people handle immediate financial challenges.

If nothing else, there could have been some more definite plans about rescheduling. People might have been given a timeline for how long they might be weathering the storm. Events could have been rescheduled, even tentatively for a future date. Colleges might have anticipated that some students are safer on campus––and to be fair, some are now waking up to this option.

You may have to lay people off before this is over. You may make decisions that will severely impact the lives of the people you serve.

Involve them. Be as transparent as possible about what you’re facing. General Patton famously said,

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise with their ingenuity.”

Tell people you’re up against it. See what solutions they come up with. You just might find that everyone comes out far better off.

Which leads to another important crises leadership strategy…

Share what you know…

The problem with coronavirus is that there is a lot that nobody knows. Healthcare officials are saying they don’t yet understand how this virus is mutating, why it’s particularly dangerous to specific types of people or exactly how long the thing can live on hard surfaces.

These are all troubling things NOT to know about a dangerous pathogen.

Still, there is a lot of good information available. Again to be fair, a lot of this good information has been made public by many officials. To be frank––some of it is just way over our heads as non-medical lay people. And with other information, it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, particularly as sensational headlines disguise what is sometimes useful or even promising news.

Back to political leadership. One of the most selfish and disturbing things a leader can do is to announce that “I have a plan,” only to follow-up with “and I’ll announce it later this week.”

This can mean “I really don’t have a plan, but I want people to think I do.” And that’s how a lot of people will take it.

Or it can mean you’re sincerely trying to comfort people. It’s more comforting to share what you know, admit what you don’t and promise to share more details as you know them.

Again we can’t ignore the political ramifications right now. Elected officials are expected to have plans, even when nobody else in their position would do any better. Admitting that you might not, or that you’re still considering options can be exploited by your opponents.

Well, that’s the price for the life. Genuine leadership is about doing the right thing––especially when it’s not comfortable, expedient or profitable.

Now sometimes a leader does have access to proprietary information, and discretion is often the better part of valor.

But too often the justification for keeping things close to the vest is to avoid panic. Nothing causes people to panic more than keeping them in the dark.

The monster in the closet is always bigger than the one that remains in the room when you flick the lights on.

Create a vacuum in a crises and rumors, conspiracy theories and outright lies rush in to fill the void. Some of these can be lethal––more lethal than the actual problem.

You will have to decide what facts might cause panic. You also need to weigh them carefully against the damage you might do by not sharing as much as possible.

I am kind of an evangelist in this area. The reason for my faith is because we consistently see people’s reactions when an unforeseen disaster hits. Look at the tornados in Tennessee last week.

Nobody ever knows for sure that a tornado is going to strike or where. It’s a sudden and devastating event. Within minutes after those storms, neighbors were helping neighbors. People were providing shelter, supplies and assistance all across the region.

People stepped up as leaders. And I’m not talking about the just the officials, I’m talking about those neighbors. People helping people, people seeing what needs to be done and doing it leadership.

“Be confident, yet humble. Lead by example.”

Your people don’t want to see you panic under pressure. Sure, you’re human. You’re probably as frightened and worried as anyone else. But people are counting on your example and how you conduct yourself will either send them into a panic––or inspire them to pull keep their minds on the task at hand and pull together to overcome any obstacle.

If you’re scared––nothing wrong with saying so. Just try to maintain your decorum when you do. State your fears and your reasons for those fears in a measured, deliberate way.

The best way to do this is to prepare what you’re going to say. Very few people are good “off the cuff” in these situations––and even the best usually take some time to think about what they’re going to say and how. Granted, they may stay up all night doing it!

Include these components in your message:

  1. State the facts. State the problem clearly and accurately.

  2. Share your fears or concerns. No blame (see above).

  3. Reveal your plans or response. Be careful not to impose an edict––just share what you’ve been thinking about so far.

  4. Solicit their input. Ask about their concerns. Ask for suggestions. Show that you appreciate their ideas.

  5. Bring them together. Express re-assurance. Tell them that “Together, we’re going to get through this.”

One of the most important roles of a leader is to get people working together––pulling in the same direction… To transform ME into WE.

Now you might have your moments. I’m sure as hell having mine right now. Like many of you, I’m seeing my business grinding to a halt as conferences are cancelled and postponed. Like many of you, I’m worried about how I’m going meet my obligations, pay my bills, take care of the people depending on me. Sleep is a luxury I can’t afford right now and I’m scrambling to come up with ways to adapt and overcome.

I’ve been here before. So have many of you. Let’s work together––we will get through this. And many of us will be the better for it.

With your leadership, we’ll persevere. And whether it’s your first real crises, or another in the hit parade––you will discover new talents, new reserves of energy and creativity and you will grow as a leader and as a person.

Adversity? We’ve got our share right now. Leaders embrace it…

Celebrate Adversity. It’s your opportunity to become the leader you might never have imagined without it.


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