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.