COVID-19 Demands a Change in Leadership — Here’s Why

This is an unprecedented time in our history. It’s a moment when the entire world is grappling with the same beast — at the same time. We are on our knees as nations, societies, businesses, families, and individuals. Every unit in our social fabric is stretched beyond anything we’ve experienced collectively before.

Countries are struggling to save the lives of their citizens, with various degrees of success depending on the state of their healthcare system, social infrastructure, political will, and citizen cooperation.

Societies have been stripped of their illusions about equity as those with resources, privilege, and a lifetime of quality healthcare outlive those pinned to the mat by poverty, oppression, and a lifetime lack of affordable, quality healthcare.

Businesses are scrambling to stay afloat amidst an economic tsunami that has no end in sight. Many are drowning, adding to the record unemployment feeding the storm.

Families are juggling child care, elder care, virtual classrooms, and remote work that’s disrupting their usual way of working (and forcing them to share space in a new way). Many are dealing with unemployment and financial insecurity. And nearly half of Americans say the pandemic has impacted their mental health.

As individuals, we are plagued by anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about all of this. We’re starving for social interaction, yet also needing a break from our children, partners, parents, and housemates.

I’ll say it again: This is an unprecedented time. And those of us leading others through the vortex must bear that mantle in an unprecedented way.

We are called to be more human-centered — an approach that companies who typically see people as assets, as profit-making potential, do not embrace. We are called to architect a better world, one that honors and respects the intrinsic value of every human being.

We are called to lead with vulnerability.

And what exactly does leading with vulnerability mean? It means leading with authenticity, humanity, and connectedness — qualities that are all-too-often absent from ego-laden, authoritarian, profit-seeking boardrooms.

Authenticity

There’s an old joke about people not asking for directions when they’re lost. Admitting we are lost is admitting we don’t have the situation under control, and that we don’t know where we are headed. That’s a big cultural no-no, but one that we need to kick to the curb. Because right now, no one knows much of anything with certainty when it comes to COVID-19. To pretend otherwise is to lie.

New York’s Governor Cuomo has earned nearly universal acclaim for how he’s led that state through its devastating battle with COVID-19. And a key component of his leadership has been radical transparency and authenticity. He’s admitted, over and over, “I don’t know.”

We need to lead with authenticity, and that means acknowledging the realities on the ground. It means admitting what we don’t know, and being real about the fact that COVID-19 “stresses us on every level” and is a “painful, disorienting experience.” It means being transparent about what plans we’re making to address the uncertainty and what actions we’re taking to mitigate the stress the people in our organizations are feeling. And it means being flexible about both.

There is no place for intransigent commitments in this ever-evolving situation. What works one week may not work the next. So, put your ego aside and admit when a decision needs to be revisited, or a plan needs to be reworked.

Humanity

We’ve all heard about the mind-boggling bad behavior of organizations ignoring worker safety. And it typically comes down to money. If you let your hospital staff wear masks, it might frighten away patients. If you follow COVID-19 worker safety guidelines in workplaces, it will hurt profits.

Do you want to be a leader who puts profits before people?

Or will you focus instead on alleviating the stress and suffering of people in your organization as you work to keep it afloat?

Are you offering paid sick and family leave?

Are you lowering your expectations for worker productivity, as your employees care for their parents and children?

Are you supporting people working from home permanently?

Are you making difficult decisions with heart, minimizing the human toll, and communicating with compassion?

You have a choice. You can be a leader who prioritizes profits. Or you can be a leader who prioritizes people compassionately.

When COVID-19 hit, one of the first things we did at Articulate was to revise our expectations about what projects we can tackle this year. We’ve always been a fully remote company, so our hundreds of employees are already highly productive working from home. (See this article or my recorded webinar on working remotely if you need some guidance on that.) But despite our remote work excellence, we knew that this pandemic would require people to juggle kids and family at home in an unprecedented way. We knew it would take an emotional toll that hampers concentration. And so, we overhauled our plans, so that work doesn’t add to people’s stress.

Connectedness

Every wisdom tradition teaches that we are all connected. That point couldn’t be underlined more starkly than it is today. Your health, or perhaps even your life, literally depends on my decision to wear a mask and quarantine if I get sick — and vice versa.

The familiar refrain, “We are all in this together,” couldn’t be more accurate.

As leaders, we must recognize that how we handle this crisis with the people in our employ reverberates throughout their families, our society, and the world.

Orienting around the fact that we’re all connected changes the way we approach every decision. It introduces human impact into our calculus. We must ask ourselves questions like:

  • Who does this decision impact, and how does it impact them?
  • What insights can I gather from the people who will be impacted by this decision?
  • What underrepresented voices can we listen to when making this decision?
  • What priorities and values are driving this decision, and are they the right ones?
  • Is there an alternative decision we can make to minimize the negative impact or maximize the positive impact on people?
  • What more can we bear as an organization to reduce the negative impact on people?

As Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in his highly compassionate message to employees about the company’s layoffs, “What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love.”

There’s a reason this supposed open letter from Bill Gates went viral. It reminds us that “our true work is not our job. That is what we do, not what we were created to do. Our true work is to look after each other, to protect each other and to be of benefit to one another.”

I’ve got many more helpful articles coming, so follow me on Medium to learn how to create a high-performing remote workplace and to build a human-centric organization that’s a force for good in the world.