Seasons of extreme change always create extreme opportunities. Those who successfully act on those opportunities are usually remembered by history. Those who don’t are usually forgotten.
During the COVID-19 pandemic — a time of unprecedented challenge — leaders everywhere are feeling the responsibility of their roles, perhaps like never before. Every decision feels like a “bet-the-farm” wager. During recessions, at least we have some frame of reference. “This is like that” thinking can, to some degree, help guide us toward a preferable future.
But a pandemic? None of us were alive during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and most historical accounts describe the impact, not best practices for economic recovery. Even companies recognized for their comprehensive contingency plans often failed to take a global pandemic into account.
So, we are left to figure this out as we go. In a very real sense, many companies will survive or fail based on how well their leaders bear the weight of responsibility to make the right decisions. Here are three types of decisions a leader must make if he or she wants to be found faithful in this season of massive change.
Every survivor of corporate downsizing has a story of senior leaders saying in a confident tone, “We are not considering layoffs at this time” only to realize when they were cut loose, plans were already well under way. True leaders respect people enough to believe they can handle the truth, even when it is an unpleasant one.
To paraphrase your mom, “If you can’t say what is true, don’t say anything at all.” People long to feel the liberation of truth from their leaders. There is perhaps no greater building block of trust. And we will all need every ounce of trust we can get in the days ahead.
Everyone is familiar with the “fight-or-flight” (or freeze) response as a primitive and powerful survival reaction. Even those who would fight when personally threatened are prone to freeze when a safe path out is less than clear. As John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
The message is that for a leader, fear is not so much an emotion to be felt as it is a challenge to overcome. We are all scared right now. To pretend to be otherwise is to appear naïve or foolish (and be in denial). But others are counting on us to lead them someplace better than where we are. This is a time for strategic action based on our best thinking. Waiting too long, especially waiting for a “return-to-normal,” could result in devastating consequences.
Leading collaboratively is hard. But all of us are smarter than any one of us alone. It is particularly valuable when we admit the inadequacy of our own experience. You can be sure you are not the only person in your organization thinking about what’s next. Now might be just the time to regularly bring the best minds together — regardless of position or longevity — to think together about a way forward that looks very different than the way back.
We are imperfect people working with limited information in an ever-changing environment. We are all making choices now that will have impact for some time to come. In a season where, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, “… I can see no way out but through,” our wisdom and conviction will be tested as never before. Regardless of the outcome, may we carry out our leadership responsibilities with courage and resolve for all those who follow us.
Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership, with Ed Rowell, CSL consultant.