In ways most of us never imagined, the Covid pandemic has disrupted virtually every facet of our lives.
It’s changed how we buy and sell products and services. It’s changed how we interact with customers and clients (not to mention our own families). It’s changed how we collaborate with colleagues and team members. It’s affected sports and entertainment, and even our national and international politics.
In short, the pandemic is a worldwide calamity with stubborn staying power.
But there’s good news. Human beings are a resilient species. Our history is full of people who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to accomplish great things. Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Nelson Mandela come to mind.
And the current challenge—one that’s felt by billions around the globe—is bringing out the best in many people.
Dr. Joseph Michelli, an internationally renowned organizational consultant and bestselling author, has made a point of highlighting “the good stuff” going on during the pandemic.
His latest book is Stronger Through Adversity. The book’s subtitle underscores the message: World-Class Leaders Share Pandemic-Tested Lessons on Thriving During the Toughest Challenges.
Joseph contacted more than 140 senior leaders at companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, DHL, Target, Verizon, Kohl’s, Marriott and many others. He collected a wealth of stories about how to thrive in all storms, large and small.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You cite Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and Franklin Roosevelt as transformational leaders because of their blend of authenticity and adaptability. In addition to those qualities, what have you seen in leaders who’ve been especially effective during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Joseph A. Michelli: During the pandemic, leaders benefitted from humility and compassion.
Leaders who said, “I don’t know, let’s find out” or “Let’s work together to find a solution” fared well. Everyone was in the same storm (albeit on different boats), and no one had navigational equipment optimized for the conditions. Exceptional leaders also made compassionate accommodations to address the challenges faced by their teams (remote work, homeschooling, Covid-19 infections, family deaths, etc.).
Duncan: In your examination of more than 140 leaders, what two or three most noteworthy themes did you observe in their approaches to adversity?
Michelli: Unlike any other time in my history with the C-suite, leaders expressed angst about the substantial harm (illness and death) that Covid posed to their team members and external customers. There is a fundamental shift in the way leaders perceive the social contract between a company and those it serves. As a result, team member well-being and physical safety have increased in importance. Before the pandemic, safety considerations operated in the background. By the first quarter of 2020, however, safety leaped to the forefront.
Since business survival often hinges on the effort, innovation, and courage of team members, I see greater “employee-first” prioritization. Leaders are not just talking about the importance of customers. They are taking action to meet team members’ needs so that their teams can innovate valuable solutions for customers.
Duncan: What have been some of the most common missteps reported by those leaders?
Michelli: Common missteps include objective overload, analysis paralysis, or the converse—acting without information.
During the crisis, leaders find that they need to narrow their objectives. They must be sure that everyone in their organization is aligned to achieve essential priorities.
Some leaders have been slow to shed participative management approaches (layers of committees and labored decision-making processes) and pivot to more agile crisis response tactics. By contrast, some leaders report that adversity has fueled impulsive reactions. They have to slow themselves down to collect the best available information before deciding on a course of action.
Duncan: You quote Napoleon Hill, who observed that “every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” In what ways have you seen people adopt a growth mindset in the face of a pandemic?
Michelli: Many leaders told me they used to believe they “had to have most if not all of the answers” and be “ruggedly independent.” However, some noted that being totally out of control opens one up to learn and reach out to others for guidance and help.
Jim Mortensen, President & Chief Executive Officer at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville, Washington, shared how important it was for him to participate in a group called Challenge Seattle. That leadership community includes CEOs, Presidents, and Board Members from companies like Alaska Airlines, Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom, REI, Starbucks, and Zillow. Through the group’s meetings and homework, Jim and his colleagues have demonstrated a growth mindset and have stayed data driven. They benefitted from insights of brands with a global perspective.
For example, a Microsoft team member living in China called into a meeting as the virus appeared in Washington. Jim concluded, “The work done in Challenge Seattle has allowed us as employers to take action on behalf of our teams, customers, and other stakeholders well in advance of guidance or regulation from our political leaders. In our case, at Ste. Michelle Estates, it’s allowed us to be on our toes, not on our heels. It helped us anticipate the protocols and procedures we need before we had a Covid positive case in one of our production facilities in Eastern Washington and before we re-opened our tasting room to our 400,000 annual visitors.”
Jim’s experience demonstrates the value of being a lifelong learner—especially during a crisis.
Duncan: What role should self-care play in leaders’ dedication to the people and causes they serve?
Joseph Michelli: In the spirit of pre-flight safety announcements, effective leaders realize that they must take care of themselves to ensure the safety and viability of their team members, customers, and businesses. Had the pandemic been short-lived, leaders might have gotten by with a few 20-hour workdays. However, as the crisis plodded on, many realized that poor self-care was doing more than affecting their well-being. It was setting an expectation of overwork for their teams.
Chris Recinos, Ph.D., the CEO of the Nurse Leader Network, and a Chief Nurse Executive at a major healthcare system in Los Angeles, put it this way: “Like other senior leaders, I felt like I couldn’t leave the hospital or step away from patient care. For example, I worked 52 consecutive days with no days off. It was hard to take time away when so many people came to me for solutions. It was also difficult to express weakness—so I put on my emotional armor to seem strong.”
This intense external focus seemed to be working for Chris until she could no longer ignore the large price she was paying for poor self-care. According to Chris, “Everything took a backseat except what was happening in the hospital. I was no longer teaching, recording my regular podcasts, or running my Nurse Leader Network. Since my husband also works at a hospital, our kids struggled in school. It was like Lord of the Flies at my house—with our children virtually stranded on an uninhabited island.”
Fortunately, according to Chris, a colleague “said she felt like she should get the Worst Mother of the Year award and every other leader with a child at home expressed that same feeling. At that moment, we knew we hadn’t taken care of ourselves or our broader priorities. So, we assigned accountability partners to make sure we were all taking respite. Every week we’d talk to our partner about what we did to re-energize, and they would make sure we were taking days off and truly disconnecting from the work. It’s amazing how we as leaders can get so pulled into the importance of our work that we can lose ourselves and deprioritize our families in the process.”
By taking those steps, Chris reported greater effectiveness at home and at work.
Duncan: Of all the changes in work practices necessitated by Covid-19 social distancing, which ones do you think have the potential to be most productive for adoption on a “permanent” basis?
Michelli: In the context of both employee and customer experiences, I expect we will see a future where world-class organizations are increasingly technology-aided and human-powered.
We will enjoy hybrid interactions—sometimes choosing technologies that drive convenience, and other times choosing human interactions that offer a greater personal connection. Videoconferencing, team collaboration tools, contactless payment, and curbside pickup will remain. We will also re-engage in face-to-face meetings and conferences. I believe we won’t “return to normal.” Instead, we will evolve to be “better than normal.”
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.
NEXT: How Covid Is Teaching (Some) Leaders How to Lead
- Climbing the Leadership Ladder? Some Steps You Can’t Afford to Miss - April 5, 2021
- Struggling to Solve a Problem? Think Like An Alien - March 29, 2021
- How to Prepare for a Work Future You Can’t Even See - March 22, 2021