Many of my clients are classic Type-A personalities: driven over-achievers who need to be active, engaged, and “in the game.” These are tough leaders, but the realities of the COVID-19 crisis are creating new and unfamiliar stressors: being forced to work remotely, having to have your team work remotely, shutting down of “non-essential” businesses, and even social distancing. It’s hard to get in the game if you feel like you’re stuck in the locker room.
What is needed now is RESILIENCE. The word comes from Latin and refers to a physical property: a substance is “resilient” if it returns to its original form after being bent, stretched, or compressed. Rubber is resilient; cast iron is not. A boxer who can take a punch and stay in the fight is resilient; a braggart with a “glass jaw” is not.
For leaders and managers, what resilience means most of all is the ability to withstand and bounce back from adversity. Resilient leaders are able to pick themselves up when they fall down or get knocked down; they look at mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn and get better; they are motivated by a desire to learn and grow; they are tenacious and resourceful in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; and they demonstrate what I call “skeptical optimism”—projecting confidence that everything will be fine in the long-term, while bracing themselves for unexpected challenges any single moment may bring.
Resilience is an emotional capability as much as a leadership characteristic. While some people may naturally have more “grit” than others, resilience can be developed and learned. As the great teacher Warren Bennis observed, many of the best leaders point to “crucibles” that formed them. One possible silver lining of COVID-19 is that it may be a crucible for our next generation of leaders.
It’s hard to get in the game if you feel like you’re stuck in the locker room.
My friend and mentor Peter Cairo likes to observe that the best leaders bring their whole self: the Head to figure out the problem and solution; the Heart to generate inclusion and followership; and the Guts to make tough decisions. With that model in mind, I offer a few suggestions on how you can recharge your resilience:
- Put yourself in the right mindset: reality is reality, so rather than complaining about things, ask yourself “What does this situation demand from me?” Focus on what you can control.
- Manage in the present but lead in the future. Work with your people to put in place plans and processes to make things better today, to keep the business and organization afloat, and to keep everyone focused. At the same time, be sure to continue to show people that a better future is coming, and that there’s a path to get there.
- Be open and authentic: we are comforted in times of crisis by knowing that our leaders are human and that they appreciate what’s at stake for the people as well as the business.
- Be decisive. Trust your intuition, gather data, and build a plan, ideally with input from your key people. And then make the call. (Most of the time, nothing is worse than doing nothing.)
- Deepen your connections with others. Engage in dialogue. Solicit ideas. Make people feel heard. Empower people to lead. For leaders, social distancing should not mean social disconnection. Even if you’re sheltered in place, now is the time to be as visible as possible.
- Recognize that you can’t do it all by yourself: reach out to a mentor, an advisor, an executive coach, or a peer you trust. An off-line conversation or two will help you stay resilient and on track.
- Manage yourself, physically and emotionally: Get your exercise, give yourself breaks, spend time with friends and family, and remember what’s important. Learn to recognize the symptoms that you exhibit when your batteries have run too low to be effective (e.g., shortness of temper, inability to focus, etc.), and take steps to get yourself back in fighting shape. Do whatever works for you—I can’t meditate, but I find box-breathing extremely helpful for re-centering myself. While I’ve been on client calls nearly non-stop the last few weeks, including weekends, I have blocked out two hours every day to have dinner and watch a movie with my family.
Learn to recognize the symptoms that you exhibit when your batteries have run too low to be effective (e.g., shortness of temper, inability to focus, etc.), and take steps to get yourself back in fighting shape.
I’ll conclude this article with two case studies from this week: instances where clients have inspired me with their resilience and shared specific ways they are leading themselves and others right now.
Joel Bines co-leads the Global Retail Practice at the consulting firm AlixPartners. With roots in turnaround and restructuring, AlixPartners’ professionals understand what crisis looks and feels like. Earlier today, Joel and I talked about what’s at stake for leaders who are currently under a great deal of pressure. Joel noted that in order to best serve his clients—typically CEOs and CFOs of major companies—he has learned to differentiate “proactive” and “reactive” self-management. Furthermore, Joel noted, having worked to develop this capability he can help teach it to both his clients and his teams.
- Commit to physical activity to burn off excess jet fuel.
- Create a quiet place where you can focus and that can serve as your command center.
- Avoid “coming in hot” to calls or meetings.
- Escalate your perspective to see the big picture: anticipate changes; identify roadblocks or likely points of friction in advance; make sure people are focused on the important not just the urgent.
- Recognize that everyone is on edge, and disengage from unproductive conflict—which can be easy to fall into.
Reactive Self-Management (i.e., recognize that you may get ambushed sometimes):
- Learn to be like Neo in The Matrix: focus and slow everything all down so the bullets pass by you harmlessly.
- When you are pulled into something or asked for your time or opinion unexpectedly, create a buffer to re-focus: for example, by replying: “yes, I can talk now—give me 10 minutes to get to a quiet place.”
- Think about what you want to happen in every important interaction or meeting—and how you can influence the best possible outcome.
- Pick your battles. Ask yourself, “Is this really where I want to make my stand?”
- Remember that when people are under pressure, emotions can obscure the facts. As my best coach once counseled me, “You can be right and still have a bad outcome”
Over the weekend I caught up with Lisa Rabbe, Chief Government and Public Affairs Officer at Moody’s. Lisa and her team are tasked with managing a truly “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) dynamic at the intersection of international business, regulation, policy, and crisis.
Lisa is a veteran of crises, from the Asian crisis in the 1990s through the Eurozone and financial crises a decade ago. While every crisis has its own root causes and realities, Lisa advises that it’s critical to conduct a baseline review of the situation and recalibrate overarching goals as things change. A project-management approach or slavish dedication to outdated models is a common corporate failing.
Lisa and I spoke about the importance of leaders structuring their days and weeks on two parallel tracks:
1. The Predictable and the Proactive
2. The Unpredictable and the Reactive
To some extent every executive’s day or week has aspects of both, but with the current COVID-19 crisis, the volume has been cranked way up on #2, Unpredictable/Reactive. These high stakes situations are where true leaders stand out, but how you balance your focus may make or break you. In times of crisis your expertise, experience, skills, and courage are critical. But you must remember that your team and company also need you for #1, Predictable/Proactive.
Therefore, even when you’re firefighting, be sure you’re attending to your core leadership role: engaging your team to keep focused on the priorities that must stay on track; tracking milestones and deliverables; making confident decisions on what to put on the back burner, slow down, or stop altogether; setting the communication cadence (especially given #WFH); ensuring clarity of tasks/roles; and so on. While the nature of Unpredictable/Reactive is that it’s hard to control, one of your most important jobs is to make sure it doesn’t swamp the boat. Be the leader your team needs to guide contingency planning, triaging strategy, the delegation new tasks or unexpected initiatives, and real discussions about how to support each other.
Thus far, 2020 has made incredible demands on leaders of all kinds, and in April it’s likely going to get harder before it gets easier. This may be your crucible. Stay resilient.