Lead like your life depends on it


A door matt with an area to place home delivery

   Be open to change the way you think about leadership                                                                                                     Photo: The Atlantic, March 13, 2020

What a difference a few months makes. Were you like me on New Year’s Day?  Excited about the prospect of a new decade, eager to dive into work, optimistic this decade would be different…well, we got one of our three wishes. It’s different alright. Leading through COVID-19 will be unlike anything we’ve experienced.

Who would have guessed the most vital capability today would be leading at breakneck speed, slowing things down while getting ready to run a marathon? The key learning from previous epidemics is you can never move fast enough. Planning, however, takes time. Leaders are drinking from firehouses of intel, fuelling decisions that have unknown consequences.

Leaders are acquiring a whole new way to lead. Leaders are becoming compression experts. 

Take the example of Singapore, regarded as a country ahead in flattening the curve. Their secret weapon? Multi-faceted rapid deployment response in travel controls, patient protocols and distancing measures.

But there’s a chink in their armour: The problem? With all that methodical control, they couldn’t convince citizens to stay home. Twenty-three new cases were reported March 17. The majority are people returning home from infected areas. Another page now needs to be added into their playbook.

COVID-19 patients waiting to be tested

While patients are waiting to be tested for COVID-19, think about how your leadership will be tested in the coming year

Four Watch-Outs

As leaders grapple with the world crisis, here are four watch-outs and the accompanying questions you can ask as you stare down COVID-19.

Assess your readiness to lead. As we think about brave leaders from frontline healthcare to leadership teams working in eerie silence, I couldn’t help but remember a saying my mother would use when us kids faced tough challenges: “forewarned is forearmed”.

This is the time to take stock of what you bring to the party. It’s the moment to identify where you are strong and where you need help. It’s not a time to fool yourself. Look back. Where did you shine, when did your temper run short, when did you have self-doubt? Put those same lenses on those who work with you.

The vital work here is to identifying expertise, experience and capabilities you may not have, but need. It’s the most brutal form of authenticity – admitting we don’t know it all, can’t do it all.

Let the past inform the present – but not too much. We are living in a time of known unknowns. Remember back to when you launched out into the unknown. Ask yourself “What previous crises have I faced like this?” Times where you were literally teaching yourself in the moment. This is one of those times. Play the movie in your mind of those moments. Recall mis-steps. Map out the similarities and differences between then and now. Next, study your actions. What were the results? What would you have done differently? Document these and share them.

Become a student of the virtual voice: You will grow tired of repeatedly saying the same three key messages. But they must be said, and often. Check yourself by asking “How do I instill urgency while reducing panic?” Begin with humanity, channel your values  – and mean them.

Meet people where they are. Old-fashioned phone calls are back (!) alongside  Zooms and LinkedIn forums. Share stories and learn from each other to ease the tension. Jettison the idea of best practices, move to “next practices” that flesh out scenarios.

Rethink power: At times of crisis, the top of the house tends to grab the reins, stripping decision-making from those less senior, no matter how capable they may be. Don’t fall into this trap. This is the time to see problems by from every angle. Ask “Who’s missing from the table?” Unearth and engage those most qualified to work the problem. This is where databases like RBC’s employee skill inventory pay handsomely.

Reach back into your memory and out into your networks. No doubt, these colleagues are in the same @#!% spot you’re in.

Is COVID-19 like SARS? Yes and no. SARS was driven by exposure to infected individuals but did not spread with the ferocity of COVID-19.  Simply replicating what we did in 2002 will be not enough. As you prepare for tomorrow’s leadership, assess your strengths and reach out like you never have before. It’s not trite to say we all need to lead like our lives depend on it…because this time, it does.