Here we come 2021

BirchGrove log with snow falling and a Santa Hat.

Image: Clayton Birch

We’re almost there. Only eleven sleeps to go until this beastly year is over. To front line workers everywhere who have given of themselves like never before, thank-you. To government leaders who continue to make crucial decisions to safeguard our health, keep going. To leaders who have made difficult decisions to keep their organizations running, don’t stop. To creative performers, keep singing, keep dancing, keep practicing your art. To kids who are having such a tough time understanding why all of this happening, keep learning. To senior citizens who are doing their best to protect themselves, we all love you.

Experiment with your experience

Leading ourselves out of the pandemic will be be 2021’s toughest work. In 2021 we will have to dig deeper than we ever have before. I get the sense there’s a feeling that once everyone is inoculated the worst will be over. It won’t be. Unfortunately, even the most powerful vaccine will not cure systemic racism, mend a broken economy, or protect our vulnerable environment. The word resilience will take on new meaning in 2021; it will become synonymous with tireless trail and error. Leaders will need to move away from solely relying on their experience and embrace experimentation. It will be more ok to fail, so long as we’re chalking it up to lessons learned.

Once we go back to watching the Raptors’ together in big groups, visiting our favourite restaurants and galleries, we will be conflicted. We’ll feel we deserve a break after all of the sacrifices we’ve made. And we will. But we can’t put our feet up for very long. Some of the hardest but most meaningful work awaits us. Are you ready for it? We will need to be more innovative with less resources, and more entrepreneurial meeting sharper timelines. Sure we’ve been well tested, and now as we head into 2021 we need to be well rested. We need to take a moment now to pause and step back from the craziness of this year. Assessing where we went right, where we could have done better will be vital to taking those first careful steps into the new year.

Pausing to know better

On December 18th at 9:00 a.m. I finally finished the first draft of my new book, Hit Pause…Know Better. What started out as a book on relational leadership twisted and turned with each phase of the pandemic. I was fortunate that leaders who were on the front lines of change found time to share stories of resolve, pain and…hope. What became clear with each conversation is that a new kind of leadership will be needed if we are to successfully emerge out of this pandemic into a world that is as equitable as it is extraordinary.

My holiday gift to you has been designed to help you kick-start the new year off with a bang. I’ve framed seven questions you can ask yourself to prepare for this new experimental leadership. If you’d like a copy, sign up here. I look forward to continuing the conversation of resilience, experimentation and new forms of leadership as we head into January’s welcoming arms. 

Enjoy the peace of the season. You’ve earned it.

Green and red holiday card with a season's greeting in the centre

From Emergency to Emergent Leader

women navigating a maze on a beach

What was the date it hit you? When did you realize the coronavirus was the real deal? That this wasn’t a dress rehearsal. Or fake news.

I can tell you mine. It was the week of March 9. The isolation order hadn’t been given yet. I was downtown and went into the Eaton Centre to grab a coffee. Aside from me, a security guard and a Purell station between us, it was a ghost town.

The next clue came in a client call. We were talking about how things might unfold and in the next breath, my client shared half of the staff would be laid off the following week. I let that rest for a minute.

In the days leading up to self-isolation, my father-in-law, John Parker, passed away and we have yet to hold his memorial service. We don’t know when we will be able to have it.

Like you, my gradual acceptance of the pandemic went from the superficial to the pragmatic to the very personal. The last sixteen weeks has taken us from a world we knew to the land of unknown unknowns. It feels like we’ve been in a crazy maze in one of Canada’s vast corn fields.

Emerging out of the maze

Once in it, I asked myself, how are we going to get out of this one? A word struck me: emergence. Defined, emergence is the process of coming into view after being concealed. All of us have been in concealment, and we’re now about to emerge. If you’ve ever visited a maze, two things basically happen. The first is an uncanny knack to make fast, incorrect decisions. We hit blind alleys and dead ends. We make mistakes. But we learn from them, becoming more adept as we go. The second is become frustrated trying to find our way out. Panic and anxiety go hand-in-hand with isolation. When you’re in a maze you need to hit pause. Taking a minute to think about your next move and calming yourself are two helpful skills in today’s muddle.

The pandemic has forced us to hit pause. It’s funny isn’t it, when you push pause on your computer, everything stops. But when you push pause on people, that’s when things start. COVID-19 has given us a moment to hit refresh; to reimagine the kind of world we want to live in. As we begin to approach the exit to the maze, emergence leaders will be focusing on five key areas. These are the new competencies leaders will want to pay attention to.

Five Emergence Leader Behaviours

First master the art of pausing. Ironically, at a time demanding immediate action, pausing actually helps you speed things up. Think of your leadership as a lens constantly zooming in and zooming out (pun intended). Scanning for intelligence and perspective before you make the next big decision will help wide your options. Take a moment to reach inside – and outside – your organization, share and compare notes.

Second, become a compression expert. Experts are calling for leaders to be marathoners and sprinters. I disagree. This is the Decathlon. Concurrently, we need to jump over the high bar, throw a javelin and the run hurdles. Take compression in decision making, for example, where now 75% agreement = 100% alignment.

We’ve done a great job flattening the COVID-19 curve. More work is needed to raise the trust curve. Stories abound of executives questioning whether people are “really working” from home. In a Business Traveller survey, they found people are working two more hours a day! This third area sees leaders flipping the trust paradigm on its head. Don’t make people earn your trust, grant it. Give people flexibility to perform on their own terms – and they will.

The fourth behaviour is to embody prag-manity. What do I mean by this? Hard choices await us. We need to expedite our decisions with humanity. Use scenario planning as an antidote to navigate the pragmatic and the humane. Be prepared to be wrong and have alternate paths to explore.

The last quality is to guard your organization’s future. Leaders are become learning chameleons. I just spoke with a CEO who is learning six new skills to adapt to these times. Leaders are also championing culture to protect their brand. Take Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, for example, who recently sent out personalized letters to every employee, along with masks and their “back to work” plan.

Whatever maze you find yourself in, ask yourself: are you an emergency or an emergent leader? Adapt and integrate these behaviours to better prepare for the days ahead. Don’t worry about making mistakes – just learn from them. Don’t panic – just pick up an online course in javelin throwing, With a little help, you’ll be surprised how fast and how far you’ll be able to throw it.

Building Trust: Start with a Contagion for Good

A pie chart breaking down what people are really thinking during a zoom call

Image Source:                                                                                      Artist: Sarah Woodard

Hey Toronto, we need a zoomologist, fast!

You just finished your last Zoom call for the day. Your computer is resting on your first-year biology texts and your stand-up desk has been artfully positioned so that you don’t look like Casper the friendly ghost. Half the time was spent either repeating or asking others to repeat thoughts that became frozen in the air. You’ve gone through Sarah Woodard’s eight zoom awakenings and committed to yourself, “Tomorrow’s Zooms will be better!” Building trust through positive communication is always a key leadership competency but now more important than ever.

These days the most important new hires could be “Zoomologists”.

As you reflect on the day, what kind of messages were shared with you and what did you share with others? I’m not referring to the everyday grind of updates and catch-ups. I’m talking about connecting on a higher plane.

In times like these, unfortunately, such moments are rare. You’ll recognize them because they make you pause. A feeling is triggered, a memory surfaces of a time when things were, well…normal. With this remembrance, you feel restored, ready to give again to the cause. Recognizing these special moments keeps us moving forward. If you are organizing Zoom or conference calls, finding ways to surface these positive feelings raises spirits, helping us cope as the days drag on.

A contagion for good

Here’s two examples that will lift spirts during your next virtual meeting.

It’s no surprise that caremongering had its start in Canada. What began as a countermovement to scaremongering, has blossomed into a community of over thirty thousand across the country. The mission is to show – not tell or report – how hope, backed up with concrete action, has the power to uplift.

Valentina Harper, an early adopter, said she wanted to create a contagion of kindness as a counterpoint to the difficult times we live in. The story of Vancouver’s Burrard Hotel is a good example of caremongering, where a hotel that likely would have been shuttered, is now a place of respite for health care workers.

Boy Scout Quinn Callender designs and fabricates "ear guards" for health care workers wearing masks.

Quinn Callender lives the Boy Scout motto: he’s prepared

Standing on “guard”

Or how about another great Canadian story, Quinn Callendar’s “ear guard” that prevents the elastic bands on masks from rubbing against the back of people’s ears? Since late March he and his volunteer group have produced over 5,000 straps using 3D printers. If your 3D printer is sitting idle, here’s the link to get you started.

Just an idea, but at a time when leaders have been urged to over-communicate, we need to ask not just what, but how we are communicating. There are clear choices to be made. We can either drone on about how hard everything is or we can, as my friend Joan Pajunen reminded me, create a new contagion of positive emotions; an essential to building trust. 

Building trust through positive communication

As you prepare for your Zoom call tomorrow, before you “launch video”, hit pause. Think about the people on the receiving end. Plan ahead and take a few moments to search for some examples that show a spirit of giving like the ones I’ve shared with you today. And let’s not forget, humour goes a long way these days too; check out The National Post’s Gary Clement for sage advice on how to give yourself a haircut during these COVID times. Communicating positive stories is one way you can raise the trust curve on your team.

Start your own micro movement of caremongering. The furrowed brows of colleagues will ease up, maybe a laugh line or two will show up. They will be your thanks.


A bit more to share:


Recent Reflections on leadership during the Pandemic

Pause before you decide a look at three pauses you can take to make more informed decisions during times of intense pressure and fast-moving change during the pandemic.


Lead like your life depends on it, a discussion of how leader are becoming compression experts in the face of COVID-19 with reflection on how we become more self-aware.


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Read my blog here for more research and reflection.