Paul L. Caron

Monday, April 27, 2020

Leadership Lessons For The COVID-19 Recovery

Following up on my previous post, Leadership Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic:  Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Getting the Restart Right: How to Lead When Nobody Has a Map, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassAfter a sprint of crisis management, the real leadership test is what comes next. Returning to the familiar would be a mistake.

For business leaders, the coronavirus pandemic has been a baptism in crisis management; an exercise in making gut-wrenching choices, staying calm, projecting confidence and providing comfort.

Deep down, however, we all know that the real leadership test is yet to come.

In addition to the staggering human toll, this crisis has upended everything we thought we knew about finance and the global economy and exposed glaring operational weaknesses across business. Early predictions of a “V” shaped recovery have softened to a “U,” or possibly an “L” if we’re not careful.

When the Great Restart begins, many leaders will fall back on an idea once espoused by Machiavelli, who wrote: “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” They will try to reduce the anxiety in the air by restoring familiar routines, procedures and traditions. The problem is that business, as we knew it, cannot be recovered. It will need to be reinvented. ...

In the wake of the pandemic everyone, including leaders, will have work through grief and trauma without letting it affect their performance. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, once wrote that the most difficult skill he had to learn as a chief executive “was the ability to manage my own psychology.” ...

In his 2001 book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins found that most executives who led super-growth companies were ... quiet, reserved and self-effacing. They possessed “indomitable will” but directed their ambition toward the organization and its goals, rather than themselves.

The lesson seems to be this: In moments of radical uncertainty, nobody cares about your God-given eloquence and magnetism. Your leadership is a function of how you behave. And behavior can be modified. ...

[Hubert Joly, CEO of Best Buy] likened his strategy to riding a bike for the first time. You don’t want to go too fast, but it’s a lot easier to make course corrections once you’re moving.

Pandemic or no pandemic, most business leaders are wired to take action. They assume that dramatic challenges demand equally dramatic remedies.

A better approach may be to think ambitiously but advance patiently. ...

In a time like the present, when the past has failed us, leaders don’t have the luxury to cling to sentiment. You can’t move forward unless you’re willing to break strong attachments to the past.

History has shown that periods of turbulence are sometimes necessary. But the leader who really matters is the one who comes next. Deng couldn’t have reformed China if Mao hadn’t broken the economy.

The tricky part for these leaders is figuring out how to motivate people.

In his new book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson describes how Winston Churchill quickly changed British public opinion about the looming prospect of war with Germany. His rhetorical strategy wasn’t complicated. He simply spoke hard truths, then ended on a note of optimism. ...

As business leaders prepare their employees for the possibility of more lockdowns, more layoffs and many abrupt course corrections, they shouldn’t sugarcoat the size of the challenge. But they also need to remind them of the strengths they’ve already shown, empower them to act, and above all, show some enthusiasm.

This crisis, like any crisis, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make significant, lasting changes. ...

In this phase of the pandemic, people are still questioning everything. In light of this, any organization’s mission statement might seem like a disposable relic. But when the real work of rebuilding begins, people need something to believe.

At some point, millions of rattled employees will return to work and begin adapting to the new realities of temperature checks, plexiglass shields, disposable desk pads, staggered shifts and devices that buzz when people get too close.

Some will thrive. Others will grow demoralized.

Comrade Xiaoping who died in 1997 never bothered to write a memoir, but if he were alive, he might advise leaders in this moment to think boldly but be patient.

On a recent podcast, IBM’s former CEO Ginni Rometty said the pandemic has reinforced “the value of adaptability.” In the future, she added, the most important quality any worker can possess may be “the propensity to learn.”

I’d argue that this also applies to leaders, especially now.

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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