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Leading through the duration of the COVID-19 emergency

Keeping your organization running during a crisis, like coronavirus, that persists over months requires planning, clear communication, and empathy.

The coronavirus crisis is unlike any we have seen in recent memory. Its impact on our collective physical, mental, and economic health has elements in common with the 1918 influenza pandemic, the wave of terror bombings in the early 2000s, and the economic crash of 2008. It’s an inflection point, beyond which our personal and professional lives will be changed in ways we can’t yet fully understand.

Nevertheless, we must persevere. Our organizations need to survive both as vital components of the global economic engine and integral threads in the fabric of social coherence. Many people derive not just financial reward but some of the meaning in their lives from the work they do. They consider their coworkers to be part of their extended family. The workday is a metronome in the rhythm of their lives. Forging a new normal falls largely on the shoulders of those who lead. Regardless of the leadership position you hold, the decisions you make and actions you take now will reverberate through your company’s coronavirus response and into the recovery and beyond.

Over the past several years, two consistent themes in the columns I’ve written for strategy+business have been leading in a crisis and permeating our organizations with humanity. They fuse together in our current situation. Yes, we must take care of business. However, in doing so, we must take care of each other and ourselves, too. Here are a few of the most important lessons I’ve learned and written about, updated for the particular challenges of a long-duration crisis:

Spend your currency wisely

My colleague, Peter Neffenger, saw many difficult situations over a long career with the United States Coast Guard and then as head of the Transportation Security Administration. He shared with me that the two most important currencies leaders have in a crisis are information and empathy. Information, he said, should be authoritative, transparent, and trustworthy. “Despite what Jack Nicholson famously said [in the role of Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men], people can handle the truth,” Neffenger told me. “They want to know how bad things are, how they can reduce their risk, and how they can help others.”

Forging a new normal falls largely on the shoulders of those who lead.

In our current situation, empathetic leaders express genuine concern for those affected by the incident and take steps to alleviate suffering where they can. Of the many emails about coronavirus-related matters I’ve received from companies in recent days, the ones that have resonated the most with me have mentioned the steps organizations are taking to sustain associates during these difficult times. We care not only about ourselves; we want to be sure that others are taken care of, too.

Put away the cape and tights

Particularly in a crisis of long duration, you need to resist the urge to try to be a superhero. Many people working together, not a few individuals carrying all of the weight, will overcome the adversity of the current moment. The most effective leaders will create the space and climate where collaboration, compassion, and service are rewarded. They will continually push to find clarity about what’s happening and what it means, and share it. Organizations whose leaders help their people derive power from the deeper meaning of their collective efforts consistently outperform their peers while earning their social license to operate.

An enduring crisis requires you and your teams to be stronger, longer. Decision fatigue is just one of the well-documented pitfalls for leaders who ignore their physical and mental limitations. If you fail to model self-care, no one else will take care of themselves, either. Winston Churchill, perhaps the most revered crisis leader of the 20th century, took daily naps to ensure mental and physical sharpness. Everyone needs to rest and refresh to consistently perform at their best.

Navigate with your moral compass

Most organizations have a values statement and a code of ethics, but leaders rarely reference them explicitly. Now is the time to change that. It’s more important than ever to do the right thing: Take the long view on customer relationships, coworker engagement, and brand reputation. As a leader, you exert a magnetic pull on the ethics of the entire organization. Ensure that your compass keeps efforts pointed at true north by sharing how ethics shape the core operating principles you want to guide decisions and actions.

In the course of writing my recent book on crisis leadership, my coauthors and I heard many stories of how organizations called upon a higher purpose to overcome adversity. The CEO of one larger office products company told me about making a decision to cut executive pay in order to minimize layoffs during the Great Recession. The decision paid dividends for years in the form of loyalty and commitment throughout the workforce. Furniture maker and retailer Herman Miller has designated “water carriers” at the company to perpetuate an aspirational culture by formalizing how culturally significant stories are shared with new employees. Consider designating someone now to capture the stories of your people during this global crisis.

In a crisis, it’s not always your typical top performers who shine. Sales, revenue, and profit remain important, but what will get your company through periods of extended difficulty are the staff members who serve the needs of your organization and its people. These keystone employees exemplify the attitude of “we can do it” and provide checks on your company’s ethical and operational climate.

Set the cornerstone of recovery now

Although it might not seem like it in this moment, the foundation of your recovery from this emergency is already being laid. Every crisis evolves over an arc of time, through stages of “what was,” “what is,” and “what will be.” The present, “what is,” gets most of the attention because it’s immediate and urgent. In the case of coronavirus, if you took planning and preparation seriously before COVID-19 hit your area, you should have people who are handling present needs well. Take time to reflect on the people and cultural elements from “what was” that you want to preserve and how each step you take now will define the future.

I have worked with a global company in the energy sector over many years. During the Arab Spring, it was forced to evacuate an operating base on short notice when it came under attack by militants. In that endeavor, fraught with peril, the company intentionally withdrew the national employees before extracting the expatriates. The wisdom of that choice was revealed when they returned: Because local employees who had remained in the area could see that the company valued residents as much as expats, they protected the facility. Vandals and looters were told to direct their energies elsewhere. The company’s base suffered far less damage and recovered more quickly than those of competitors.

Like every crisis, the coronavirus emergency had a beginning, has a middle, and will have an end. This is not like a movie, however, where you know the running time before you purchase your ticket. There are many models of this epidemic, and no one knows exactly how this will play out. People are looking to leaders for direction, support, and hope. If you are that leader, providing those guideposts will require you to wrestle with difficult decisions, and to make the right ones, you’ll need to be deft at making sense of things. Success will ultimately emerge from linking and leveraging expertise, resources, and inspiration across traditional organizational boundaries. This is your “you’re it” moment. Now, and in the months ahead, how you lead matters.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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