Every day we see headlines on how Covid-19 continues to affect our lives. When, and how, will schools return to in-person instruction? When, and how, will businesses get back on track? What will the “new normal” even look like?
Regardless of their stations in life, people around the globe are sharing in the adversity. Some have certainly had a tougher time than others. But nobody has managed to avoid the impact of the worst health pandemic in any living person’s memory.
But there’s a silver lining. Challenging times can help people discover things within themselves that they didn’t know existed.
Dr. Joseph Michelli, bestselling author and internationally known organizational consultant, has used the Covid crisis as a case study in human resilience. To collect a treasure trove of stories about making the most of a bad situation, he contacted more than 140 senior leaders at companies like Google, Microsoft, Target, Verizon, Marriott and many others.
The result is his latest book. It’s aptly titled Stronger Through Adversity: World-Class Leaders Share Pandemic-Tested Lessons on Thriving During the Toughest Challenges.
In the first part of this interview, Joseph talked about the role of humility, compassion, and innovation in people’s response to the pandemic. Here he highlights the importance of empathic listening and self-awareness in a leader’s response to adversity.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Mindful and empathic listening is always an important practice for leaders. Why is it especially important during times of adversity?
Michelli: During high-stakes communication events, active listening occurs through closed-loop approaches like “echoing.” For example, when a surgeon asks for a “#10 scalpel,” the surgical technician completes the request and says “#10 scalpel” at transfer. In a crisis, word-level misunderstandings can be fatal.
Since adversity provokes emotional volatility, it’s also important to listen for the emotions behind words. Emotional listening (or empathic listening) provides context and an appreciation of the often-unstated wants, needs, and desires of the person you are serving.
Duncan: During a period of uncertainty (the Covid-19 pandemic certainly qualifies), many leaders have doubts about their personal adequacy. Psychologists call this the “imposter syndrome.” What’s your advice to leaders who question their own abilities?
Michelli: I am convinced that imposters are those who never question their abilities and who go to great lengths to act “as if” they have foolproof plans for every crisis. My advice would be to accept that every human being has doubts and fears, and the more we acknowledge our limitations, the easier it is to find people who have strengths to supplement our gaps.
Duncan: One of your chapter titles is “Bring Yourself to Work.” What does that mean for leaders?
Michelli: In addition to self-awareness (which was the basis of my last answer), leaders also need to be transparent. Before the pandemic, many leaders conducted business from their boardrooms. Throughout the crisis, many were participating in videoconferences from their bedrooms.
My intention with the chapter title was to play off the theme of “bring your child to work” day. We used to “bring our children into the workplace,” so they could see what we do away from home. As a leader, we need to let our teams’ peek into our lives beyond the workplace. While you can overdo personal disclosure, the pandemic prompted many leaders to see they were underdoing it.
For example, David Christ, Group Vice President and General Manager of Lexus North America, shared, “I’ve learned a lot about vulnerability during the pandemic. I typically didn’t share much about myself or my family at work. I wasn’t afraid of what others would do with the information. I just wanted to keep the focus on my team. Early in my work life, I had a boss who always talked about himself. I didn’t want to be like him. However, early in the pandemic, I shared that my son has asthma and that I was worried about his welfare. In response, team members shared concerns for their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, and even their own health. We talked about how we could ensure each person’s comfort and safety.”
Duncan: For leaders, what do you see as the essential steps for adding lasting value to their people and their organizations?
Michelli: Leaders want to have a meaningful impact. They don’t want to spend extended periods of their career doing tasks that wash away like a sandcastle. So, the first step is to imagine you are leaving your current position and looking back at your contribution. What impact do you hope will remain? The answer to that question is your desired leadership legacy. Once you know your destination, the next step is to say “yes” to actions that move you in the desired direction and say “no” to those that do not. I should note that crisis actions will likely have a much larger impact on your legacy than actions taken in times of calm.
Duncan: You write about “leading from the middle.” What exactly is that?
Michelli: In talking to leaders, it became clear that leaders needed to assume many different roles and postures throughout the crisis. I likened it to the varied leadership roles demonstrated in a wild horse herd. The herd has an alpha mare that leads from the front and sets the course toward the envisioned destination. The alpha sire leads from the rear and actively keeps the herd moving at the necessary pace. There are also many horses, leading from the middle of the pack. They are shaping herd behavior. During the pandemic, leaders found themselves shifting positions quickly from front to middle to back.
Leading from the middle means you only ask your team to do things you are willing to do. That’s why Michelle Gass, the CEO of Kohl’s, told me she needed to be in the stores the day they re-opened from the lockdown.
Duncan: Among the dozens of leaders you interviewed, what are the most common practices for establishing priorities?
Michelli: I’ll share two recurring practices. The first was to focus on the “vital few.” Those priorities were essentially mission-critical, “make or break” areas that required immediate solutions and flawless execution. Kevin Clayton, the CEO of Clayton Homes (a Berkshire-Hathaway subsidiary), noted, “We had to turn the tide on declining mortgage applications. To get that done, we made sure everybody in our organization knew the importance of dedicating their creativity to the task. Our teams then did their research, mined data, and gathered customer insights. Those inputs informed options, which quickly led to an innovative and hugely successful touchless solution that turned that mortgage application decline around.”
The second common practice was to narrow priority timelines. Joe Haury, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and the Vice President of Global Logistics at Panasonic North America, explained, “In normal operating mode, especially in the corporate world, you might have weekly team meetings because your mission has a reasonably long lead time. In crisis mode and many military situations, your time horizon is that day. You have to ask, ‘What must get done today to meet the mission?’ So, when we first went into the pandemic, we immediately launched twice-a-day crisis meetings.” Joe compared these calls to a military pre-mission operation meeting and a post-mission debrief. At Panasonic, the morning call would align leaders on the daily mission and ensure they could communicate the daily mission to their teams. The evening call assessed progress toward the daily mission and previewed the next day’s mission.
Duncan: In your research for your book, what examples of moral courage did you find?
Michelli: Rodger, there are so many examples, so I’ll pick just a few. I spoke with a police chief who had to place restrictions on the number of people who could attend the funeral of one of his officers killed in the line of duty. A healthcare leader talked about difficult decisions involving PPE shortages and developing processes so team members could use mobile devices to facilitate final goodbyes between COVID patients and their families. Brad Feldmann, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Cubic Corporation, protected employee salaries and averted furloughs while volunteering to have his pay cut. Moral courage was and continues to be quietly on display by leaders throughout the world in response to their organizations’ challenges.
Duncan: What roles do appreciation and gratitude play in helping people cope with—and even benefit from—adversity?
Michelli: Frequently, leaders said it was difficult to show appreciation and gratitude in the throes of the crisis. In the best of times, leaders fall short when it comes to dolling out recognition. For example, a pre-pandemic Gallup study reported that only a third of employees had received recognition for good work in the previous seven days. A 2019 survey conducted by the employee success platform, Achievers, found “lack of recognition” was the third most common reason employees left a company (after compensation issues and career advancement challenges). When you added the chaos of crisis, leaders had to work even harder to celebrate the extra effort of team members.
Duncan: Do you expect appreciation and gratitude to play a larger role in the work[lace after the pandemic has passed?
Michelli: I am cautiously optimistic. However, I fear we may lose some of that perspective as things move in the direction of “normalcy.” I wouldn’t wish this pandemic on anyone, but since it darkened our lives, we need to cull as many positives as we can from it. An unintended benefit has been deepened respect, appreciation, and gratitude for those who matter most. It will be incumbent on all of us to continue to show our appreciation well into the future.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.