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Leading in the Midst of Chaos and Uncertainty

We can use many hyperbolic words to describe the situation the world finds itself in with COVID-19. And they would all be accurate. With people working from home, families getting stir crazy, small businesses shut down, entire sectors hit so hard they may never come back and CEOs sorting out how to lead in the midst of this mess, I have some simple guidance to offer.

  1. Tell the truth. Only. Frequently. Be honest that things are bad and will get worse for the business. Be honest about what the company is doing to keep employees whole (or not). Don’t put on the rose-colored glasses at this moment. Direct people to the CDC for all health and virus updates. Use email blasts to share new information in brief, clear bullet points as frequently as possible. Provide a channel for staff to ask questions. And say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
  2. It’s about the people. In ordinary times, leaders don’t pay enough attention to the human beings that get it done every day. In extraordinary times, leaders must primarily speak to their concern for the staff’s well-being. “I want you to observe an abundance of caution to protect yourself and your family.” “I’ve amped up our remote HR resources so you have easy access to raise any personal concerns.” “We are working aggressively to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep you whole.” If you have usually led with the numbers, now is the time to dramatically shift gears towards the human aspect.
  3. We are, more than ever, in this together. The outcome of this pandemic is dependent upon every single person observing CDC guidelines to safeguard the health of everyone. Emphasize company values related to collective efforts, teamwork, respect for others and compassion. Our lives, literally, depend upon it.
  4. Unleash creative thinking and solutions. We believe that trying times generate new and unusual thinking. We can imagine coming out on the other side of this crisis where work looks quite different…in a good way. Fewer meetings, more small teams deployed, more flexibility about office face time, better use of electronic communications. Give people permission to experiment wildly, not only about the core work itself, but also about how the work gets done. Take a lesson from the military and continuously shift strategies and game plans to adapt to the situation on the ground.

Few leaders or communities of people are prepared to handle this pandemic. I urge leaders to provide clear, truthful and compassionate messages at this time. That will go a very long way in calming people down.

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