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.


Subscribe to my newsletter here.

Read my blog here for more research and reflection.

Raising the trust curve

We’ve heard a lot recently about flattening the curve. Last week when as I was catching up with Jayson Phelps, an executive search expert, I started to think about raising the curve when it comes to trust. We were talking about one of the most cantankerous issues looming over employers and employees as they wade deeper into the COVID-19 swamp: how do we raise the trust curve in our workplaces?

Jayson had just recently spoke with a newly placed leader in a high-tech role. While on-boarding is challenging enough, imagine having only a couple of months under your belt before the pandemic struck. Suddenly, this person was responsible for stewarding the transition of thousands of people from cubicles to their kitchen tables. The big boss was asking tough questions about maintaining security and about how the company would know people were “really working”, not just minding the kids or worse yet, getting caught up on the latest Netflix series.

The genie is out of the bottle

Last week, I wrote about a new prag-manity that would be required in decision making – one that balanced the pragmatic with the humane. It struck me that trust will need to undergo an equally complex recalibration.

The trust genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle. Contradictory data and opposing sentiments underscore the need to find whether your company’s trust barometer is going up or down. The story of these contrasting values begins with the Edelman Trust Barometer. Their study revealed 80% of employees in Canada and the U.S. said the most trusted relationship they have is with their employer. This level of trust is significantly higher than employees’ faith in NGOs, business, government or the media. The correlation between trust and treatment is inextricably tied. 78% of employees said it’s how they are treated that gauges the level of trust they put into their organization.

With this in mind, a Korn Ferry blog suggested while it might be a little “tone deaf”, a growing number of organizations have been installing spyware on employees’ computers. This software enables employers to take screen shots, track website visits, email and more. A performance monitoring tool, the software could be used to monitor productivity and contributions as well as determining bonuses.

Two sides of the data story

Tut, tut, the blog went on to say, this surveillance could be explained as something for the employees’ own good – to ensure security and privacy. It was posited that employees working long hours would object less because they had nothing to hide. The assumption being employees who failed to put in the required hours would object because they would be found out. When (not if) word gets out about spyware on your machine, star performers may bolt, seeking opportunities with less surveillance once things settle down. That seems to be a risk of losing trust some organizations are willing to make.

But let’s look at the other side of building trust, from the employee side. In a Business Traveller, report, data showed people are working longer days from home. Take a quick look at the graph below. Working hours in Canada, UK, France and Spain have extended by an average of two hours. Moreover, people are starting work earlier, likely because they’ve escaped marathon commutes.

Raising the curve of trust

Two-way trust is about the only thing we have to hold on to right now. The way organizations and employees nurture trust is to grant it, rather than challenging each to earn it. Earning trust is a bygone notion; it bolsters hierarchical structure, reinforces power politics and places greater value on the individual than the team.

Granting trust means recognizing structures, that were up until now, rigid and largely taken for granted will become as messy as the cottage junk drawer. As people who are working from home try to figure things out on the fly, leaders have to become less fixed on their way of doing things (viewed in some leader’s minds as the right way). As we’ve seen in health care, countries around the world are adept at improvising; there are many paths to the same destination.

Granting trust during these times means demonstrating faith. If a report doesn’t hit your desk on time or is not up to standard, have a private conversation with the person to find out what’s going on in the background. Context is everything, as Gable’s cartoon so aptly captured. If your organization finds itself installing spyware, think about how you will share its purpose and how you will be transparent with findings.

Testing what we’ve learned and how to apply it, will be essential to establishing new patterns, new codes of conduct and new ways to work. The difference now is ways of working will be co-created rather than emanating as edicts from above.

Coming clean on trust is an emerging issue for workplaces of all sizes wrestling in the pandemic ring. As a good friend of mine once said, when something good happens to a person, they may tell 3 or 4 people. When something bad happens, it goes viral. How workplaces respond to granting and growing trust will affect their financial and spiritual health not just over the coming weeks, but years to come.

There’s a lot at stake. Losing trust may leave your organization more vulnerable than the virus we are now combating.

While it’s generally acknowledged many things will not be the same after this crisis, how we renew trust must remain our NorthStar. Do your part, wherever you work to raise the curve on trust. Even the smallest acknowledgements of granting trust will go a long way.

Think hard, think twice. Think about granting, not earning trust.

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.

Subscribe to my newsletter here.

Read my blog here for more research and reflection.