Don’t Let a Crisis go to Waste: COVID-19 is Your Leadership Classroom

Why today’s crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to grow.
Rick Lash and Christine Miners
April 29, 2020

On a recent CNN interview, Dr. Arabia Mollette, an ER physician at New York’s Brookdale Hospital, said the following: “This has been traumatizing, especially for many of us… When patients look into your eyes and give that last breath… What makes you think that I or any worker on the front lines is going to be OK after this?”

While most of us are not on the front lines facing terrible life and death scenarios, many of us are leading through great uncertainty and complexity that is far greater than we have experienced previously. To some degree, we have all experienced personally challenging, crucible situations in our lives. This crisis is no exception. And when we are in the middle of challenging or difficult circumstances, we don’t always recognize that these most trying of times can also be the ones of greatest learning and personal growth.

How leaders really learn to be leaders

The current environment is providing an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to learn about themselves and their leadership in ways that come rarely in a career.

A crucible is a vessel where great change takes place – like a container that turns metal to gold if you’re a medieval alchemist, or a pivotal event that forges deep learning about oneself. Indeed, for the many leaders we have spoken to recently who have found themselves thrust into the COVID-19 crisis, the latter definition fits exceptionally well. The current environment is providing an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to learn about themselves and their leadership in ways that come rarely in a career.

Perhaps Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas said it best in their classic Harvard Business Review article Crucibles of Leadership. For the leaders they interviewed, “the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them… they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose — changed in some fundamental way.”

Leading in a crisis

In fact, this growth is already happening all around us during the current crisis. In recent conversations with executives, many have shared that leaders in their own organization are rising to the occasion, demonstrating some of the strongest leadership they’ve ever seen. One executive remarked “We’ve never been closer to our front line…we are in constant communication, they are engaged…staff attendance has never been better and the trust is the strongest it’s ever been. It’s amazing!”

Indeed, we are seeing that leaders have implemented new practices, approaches and habits that are truly bridging the gap with their people, elevating trust, and creating more authentic followership. Leaders are having conversations with their people to guide their understanding of what’s most important and why they do what they do.

All of the practices that we have taught leaders for years – being visionary, collaborating and engaging with others, coaching, being present and demonstrating empathy – are now happening much more frequently. In a time when people are struggling personally and professionally, more often leaders are stepping up, engaging with others and showing true authenticity.

The uncertainty and isolation being felt is enabling many leaders to be genuinely empathetic with their teams and with others precisely because we are all sharing the same collective experience. It is providing leaders with an opportunity to show vulnerability and seek support and truly “lead from the center” – staying focused on the bigger picture and inspiring others, being pragmatic and acting with conviction, showing realistic optimism, and, perhaps most importantly, boldly collaborating with others to solve really complex, high-impact problems in real time.

Choose the right lens

But there is a real and ever-present danger in a crisis – the urge for leaders to be at the center, drive all decision-making and only listen to their own voice. It would be naïve to say these behaviours are not showing up. Uncertainty, and the fear it breeds, drives many leaders and organizations into survival mode, thinking only of shareholders and plummeting stock prices as the sole lens through which all decisions get made.

In times of crisis a leader’s most critical job is to frame the context for others and give meaning to actions. Yes, many organizations are having to lay off or furlough staff, ask for reduced work weeks and reduce salaries. These are the hard realities. But the way in which these decisions are communicated and executed by leaders can make all the difference between a gutted organization having to rebuild a culture from the ashes or one where leaders keep their moral obligations and people continue to stay committed and engaged, looking back on the current events with understanding, sustained commitment and a sense of shared purpose. Professor Gil Troy of McGill University remarked that leaders at the center shift from a shareholder to a stakeholder view of the corporation. Wise and cautionary words in these times.

The path forward

For the heroic Dr. Mollette and for the thousands of healthcare workers on the front lines risking their lives for others, they will come out stronger. They and other leaders spanning almost every industry are learning what is most important in their lives, leading with greater empathy and compassion, innovating with limited resources and taking decisive action despite fear and lack of knowledge, and being more deeply connected to their colleagues and organizations.

Life is our classroom, and, like it or not, leaders have been thrust into a graduate program without necessarily wanting to be there. This crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity to learn what it truly means to be a leader and it would be a great loss if we miss the opportunity to embed this growth as a permanent part of our leadership culture going forward. We may not be the same leaders who went into the crisis, but we will certainly be better people and leaders coming out of it.

Rick Lash is a Senior Associate at Verity International. With over 30 years of experience working with clients across Canada and internationally, Rick has helped implement leadership and talent development solutions to accelerate learning and improve performance at the individual, team and corporate levels. Recognized and valued for his deep expertise, thoughtfulness and engaging approach, Rick has served as a trusted advisor working with leaders and their teams to build practical talent management solutions.

Christine Miners is an experienced talent management expert and passionate about making an impact with her customers through keeping it simple, tangible and practical. With more than 20 years experience leading talent management functions, Christine is energized by working with individual leaders, teams and organizations to broaden their perspective and translate new thinking to actions and plans that work. As Managing Director, Christine oversees all aspects of Verity’s leadership, coaching and talent management services.

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