Leading amid the uncertainty of COVID-19

This time of the coronavirus reveals and amplifies both heroism and fault lines present in our society, our communities, our families, and our organizations. 

An example of two hospitals 

Each on their own: A friend of mine is an emergency medicine doctor in California. His hospital was facing a medical mask shortage and each department was fending for themselves and stockpiling masks for their own use.  My friend felt a similar sense of disunion as he tried to place those patients his hospital could not handle in other hospitals.  Most of the area hospitals continually turned him down.  

In it together: At a hospital in Brooklyn, however, the situation was much different. Despite many dying patients, the nurses, doctors, and staff came together in deep solidarity. They imparted deep care for patients who were seriously ill and many of whom died in the absence of their loved ones.  At the start of each shift, nurses, doctors, and staff prayed together, each in their own way.  There was a true sense of caring and mutual support. In the words of one nurse; “This hospital will never be the same again. We are connected to one another like never before.”

As leaders, how might we create an environment where our people rise to the occasion together rather than retreat in disunity?  

A CEO Example

The CEO of a food-related business, which was deemed essential and hence fully operational, shared with me some clues.  I talked to him one day soon after he finished his daily COVID-19 management team meeting.  This meeting included managers from operations, finance, and administration. 

The CEO proudly shared with me an anecdote he had learned during that day’s management meeting. It was an example of the deep care that operations team members at one of his plants expressed toward the people at one of his suppliers. This supplier was scheduled to perform some critical IT upgrades. His operations team wanted the help but expressed concern about the health risks the IT team would incur from flying to the plant. Based on this concern, the supplier’s team changed their plans and drove to the plant. The supplier’s team was deeply moved by the caring of the operations team. The CEO’s company was the only customer to express genuine concern and care for the IT suppliers’ people during this time of COVID-19.  Many of the IT company’s other customers were highly agitated, reactive, and complaining over the slightest of problems. 

I was touched by the story and curious about how the CEO’s leadership may have influenced his team’s deep care.  So I probed to learn more about the CEO’s leadership practices.  I asked about the morning meetings to see if they might reveal some clues. 

I learned that during these meetings the participants went around the table beginning with operations.  Each person discussed challenges, what was going well, what isn’t, and what they need to do.  This seemed normal enough.  So I dug deeper.  

What I found, that was exceptional, was the CEO’s behavior.  He exuded a calm caring, listened deeply and paid attention to both what each participant had to say and to their less-evident emotional states. He also sensed to discern the emotional climate in the room. Sometimes the CEO interjected a comment or initiated a short discussion. Mainly, however, he waited and spoke after everyone else had finished. Other meeting participants were also attentive and responsive to the topics addressed and to each other’s needs.  

Initially, these meetings had been quite chaotic as everyone worked to figure out what to do amid the crisis. Now the meetings were more normal. The group celebrated their successes and maintained a climate of mutual caring with a strong sense of gratitude. In the past, they would become disappointed and frustrated by unforeseen problems and missed production goals.  Now their energy was different. The group now viewed, what once would have been seen as problems, to be solvable challenges within a bigger climate of gratitude. This allowed them to shift from disappointment and frustration to excitement where people were energized by the challenges to be met. 

In the CEO’s view, their climate of care now influences everything the company does. People are much more open to each other’s perspectives.  They are more creative and responsive as they work together and they have a strong sense of mutual caring. The employees are now showing up to work early.  And they are bringing a new can-do attitude home to their families.

Lessons for Leaders

As leaders at this time of COVID-19, it is useful to reflect on the power of the climate we create through our emotional states and by the way we listen and interact. 

Amid the uncertainty of COVID-19, many of us are anxious.  This anxiety can escalate as we engage with each other.  As the emotional climate becomes more tense, people increasingly react from engrained patterns adopted to help them feel safe.  These protective patterns are variants of fight, flight, freeze, and appease and they impede individual and group performance. 

On the other hand, skillful leaders can notice when individuals or the overall climate feel anxious.  And they can help transform tension into excitement and productive engagement. Of course, it helps if they have already established an underlying sense of shared caring and concern.

By David Sherman, Founder, Recreating Leadership.  David equips and supports leaders to develop and integrate the cooperative power of people, organizations, and systems to advance a better future.

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