The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everybody. Within the span of a week, it put our small, non-profit organization into a cash-flow crisis, forcing us into temporary wage reductions and layoffs to reduce expenses initially by approximately 66% and requiring us quickly to identify new ways to generate income.
As we’ve been forced to make quick, high-consequence decisions and to take unplanned, unhappy actions over a remarkably short period, I’ve been circumspect on my thoughts.
Writing helps me think, and my thoughts took the form of advice offered to a senior leader (myself), describing the steps I see myself taking to lead our organization through the COVID-19 crisis to some new normal on the other side. These are the thoughts of someone leading through a crisis in situ, not reflections of one having successfully completed the course. I share them with the invitation to challenge, affirm, or helpfully redirect my thinking as I lead the best I can in an unpredictable situation.
1. Inspire hope.
In a short-term crisis, like evacuating a burning building, the first thing is to get everybody calm. But in an enduring crisis, like a war, a depression, or a pandemic, keeping calm is not enough. As a leader, your role is to guide the organization to safety on the other side of the crisis and to preserve your organization’s mission, no matter the crisis’s duration. To accomplish this, you need to do more than calm people. You need to inspire hope. To successfully weather an enduring crisis, your people must believe in and be able concretely to envision a return to life. Even as a crisis worsens, hope enables resilience.
Curt Richter made this observation famous with his experiments on rats in the 1950s. In his lab at Johns Hopkins University, Richter deposited rats in jars of water and timed how long they would fight to survive before drowning – a minute or two at best. (A little grisly, I know. Things were apparently different in the 50s.) Then he tried the experiment again. This time, however, he temporarily rescued rats from their watery fates before returning them to the water. The rescued rats kept fighting to survive, no matter how often they were returned to the water. Richter wrote: “After elimination of hopelessness, the rats do not die” (here).
Inspiring hope is a leader’s continuous vocation throughout the crisis, to be repeated with nauseating redundancy for the crisis’s duration. You need to articulate hope in terms that are concrete, realistic, and missional. If you’ve done the good work of building a mission-driven organizational culture, here’s where it pays off.
2. Focus with ruthless myopia.
At strategic planning meetings, it’s common to start with the question, “What’s the most important thing right now?” In a crisis, you ask that question on steroids. “What’s the most important right-in-your-face-going-to-kill-you-thing RIGHT N-O-W! – bolded, exclamationed, double-underlined N-O-W!.” Everything else goes immediately off the table. Getting mission focused, you need to decide what are the bare-bones essential next moves you need to make for your organization and mission to survive. Then you start to put back on the table only what will facilitate your survival.
3. Secure your own oxygen mask first, and then your crisis team’s.
Perhaps the toughest thing you’ll need to do in the beginning is to save yourself. The second toughest is to identify and save only your crisis team, leaving others behind. If you’re the leader you need to lead. Nobody is helped by a grandiose display of martyrdom. Of course, you take a significant pay cut and work extra hours, but you need to survive and to lead if you’re going to help your people.
In a forced lay-off situation you can’t save everyone, at least not all at once. (If you can, then you’re experiencing organizational inconvenience, not organizational crisis, and this advice isn’t for you.)
With ruthless myopia, you need to identify who of your team most have the specialized skills and capabilities you need specifically to solve the right-in-your-face-going-to-kill-you-thing RIGHT N-O-W! problem.
Chances are your leadership team is on the list. Structurally, you’ve already delegated to them expert organizational responsibilities that they’ll need to maintain. (In organizations with large leadership teams, it’s possible not all will make the initial cut.) That’s the easy part. Much tougher, you now need to go ruthlessly through the list of motivated, hard-working, highly competent, beloved people that give your organization its very soul and select from that list only those employees that bring the best-fit skills and abilities to address specifically the RIGHT N-O-W! problem.
For those you’re forced to lay off, your job is to ensure you’re doing your absolute best to minimize preventably adverse impact on them. This means ensuring your actions don’t jeopardize their access to the maximum Employment Insurance payouts, maintaining their benefits while they’re off (if you can), keeping informed of government or other subsidy programs that can help them, and keeping everyone in the loop of any important news or updates. Laid off and not, these are your people.
Being laid off, even for good, understandable reasons (like a pandemic) exacts a high emotional toll on employees. But so does surviving layoff. In addition to supporting your laid-off community, you will have to manage (and to self-manage) the “survivor’s guilt” for those who remain. Here, inspiring hope is again paramount. You need to keep hope alive for those who are gone, but, acutely, you also need to keep it alive for those still working. By saving them, you’ve now inflicted upon the crisis team you created not only guilt for surviving, but also your leader’s burden of responsibility to bring everyone else back safely to the organization. You need to care for your full team as never before.
4. Set your face like flint.
I’ve always liked the imagery in Isaiah 50.7, where the prophet describes his resolute determination as “setting my face like flint.” Luke uses similar language of Jesus in Luke 9.51. “Flint” describes the resolve you need to lead through crisis. There’s no room for fear, doubt, or survivor’s guilt. You must help your team navigate these emotions in themselves, but you’ve got to stay flint-faced resolute yourself. This advice may seem to contradict important contemporary leadership advice that leaders cultivate their emotional vulnerability, but it doesn’t. Emotional vulnerability is essential for culture-building and for developing trust, and if you’ve practised it with your team you’ll benefit from that trust-culture now. As a leader, during crisis you must remain completely transparent and approachable. But equally during crisis your people need you to make ruthlessly difficult decisions for their long-term benefit and to not fall apart or redirect sympathy toward yourself as you do so. This time is not about you. This is a time for what Jim Collins calls Level 5 leadership, combining a resolute grasp of reality with a resolute optimism for the future. That’s who you must firmly be.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Nothing inspires fear like silence. As masters of the horror genre well know, the bogeyman in your head is always scarier than the bogeyman beneath your bed. You need to communicate openly, honestly, and often. Your people laid-off need to know you haven’t forgotten them and that you’re working your backside off on their behalf. Your people onsite need to know what you need, why you need it, and how it’s going to help restore normalcy. Importantly, when you communicate you don’t need to have all the answers; that’s an impossible expectation. And for goodness’ sake, don’t lie. But if you communicate often and well, then everyone can at least hold onto the hope (there it is again) that a resolution is coming.
6. Gradually increase panoramic vision
Summiting an enduring crisis is unlikely to be a one-peak ascent, and the COVID-19 crisis certainly isn’t. Once you’ve sufficiently settled the most pressing elements of the RIGHT N-O-W! problem you need to return to the question: “What’s the NEXT most important thing right now?” Be prepared to repeat that question again and again and again until you’re approaching range of vision. As you accumulate new information and resources to ascend to each new peak in the crisis, you also need continually to re-assess your crisis team. The team you needed to ascend the last crisis peak may not be who you need to conquer the next. This can get complicated working with layoffs and Employment Insurance but these are the pieces you’ll need to navigate as you gradually reassemble your full team on your climb to your new normal, ascent by ascent, peak by peak.
7. Rebuild a new normal.
The world will not be the same post-crisis. We’ll all emerge bumped and bruised to scenes of destruction and debris. But if we’ve managed well, we’ll all emerge. Collectively, we’ll start the process of organizational re-building. We’ll assess the damage, get oriented to our new reality, and begin setting new organizational priorities, new objectives, and new structures to accommodate the organization’s enduring mission to our new shared reality. The shared experience of enduring crisis may reveal new skills and character traits in employees, open new opportunities to exploit, present clearer vision, inspire fresh objectives, and enable a leaner, more efficient operation. It will be a new day with new adventures.
Since assuming a leadership role, I’ve lived by the maxim, “Never waste a good crisis.” Admittedly, I’ve never tested this on the scale of a global pandemic. But I believe it holds. Where some see only threats, others look for opportunity. If we navigate this crisis well, I believe opportunities will abound.