We are living, working and leading in a stressful and uncertain time. People are vulnerable, looking for a way through the current mess and mayhem while monitoring their health and wellbeing, and that of their family and friends. We have seen countless businesses close, sacking or standing down tens of thousands of employees. This is a result of the heath and economic crisis caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic threatening lives across countries and jurisdictions.
How will you manage yourself and your team during this time?
I invite you to consider the response taken to threats by other industry leaders in history and find an innovative, ethical and daring way to weather this storm. Seize this opportunity to engage in daring leadership with an infinite mindset.
You now have more responsibility than ever. You need to ensure those in your team have a sense of trust and safety in their workplace when, globally, that safety net is becoming more limited daily.
There are three important traits leaders must manifest right now:
1. Daring Leadership
Leadership is hard work and needs the right people in the right roles. Our current situation will either let organisations know they have the appropriate people in managerial roles, or that true leaders people are willing to follow come from deeper within. Brene Brown (2018) defines “a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential” (p.3). Currently, finding potential in people and new processes is necessary to maintain operation.
Regardless of whether your role is a defined organisational leadership position, you can fit the personality trait of a leader. Conversely, you may be in, or know of people in, leadership positions who do not fit Brown’s definition. This is where we sort the managers from the leaders.
Facing COVID-19 requires true and daring leadership for organisational survival. Brown writes extensively on vulnerability. Leaders must accept that these are challenging times in which all people and organisations are vulnerable - they must “embrace the suck” (p.3). It is not the job of leaders to hide this fact; honesty about the situation will build trust. Sugar coating, though, will build distrust.
High quality, effective leaders should already be engaging in daring leadership and have developed a reputation for honesty underpinned by compassion and empathy. Our current context is where this pays off because your team will be willing to follow you if they trust you (Dreeke, 2017).
In such uncertain times, organisational leaders should endeavour to be the calm and steady force that maintains clear goals, though those goals may need to be adjusted to suit the situation. If you can align your goals for the organisation (to keep operating in some form) with that of your team members (to stay employed and continue to provide for their family), you are likely to maintain trust (Dreeke, 2017). Of course, many organisations face forced closure, at least temporarily, but your team will require you to engage as a daring leader and shift the business model to match the brave new world in which you now operate. Brown (2018) explains that “not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet changing demands” (p. 3), and this is where quality leadership is essential.
If those in leadership roles fail to engage in daring leadership, they can expect workers to turn to people within the organisation who do possess these positive leadership traits.
2. Innovative Thinking
Innovation is not a new benefit for organisational success. In this time, however, it could mean the difference between organisational survival and collapse.
Innovative leadership is all about the culture leaders grow within their organisation and how safe members feel to innovate their own practice. Beyond being able to adjust your business model (see infinite mindedness below), leaders must have already established a setting in which workers feel confident to experiment with new ways of working to protect and support the organisation that means so much to them. If this is not the case, swift reflection and admission of error is needed by leaders if their team is to step up now.
Rizki, Parashakti and Saragih (2019) concluded that leadership itself correlates little with innovative practice among employees, but the culture begot by leadership greatly affects the innovative potential of teams. Therefore, innovation in this time will be a return on cultural investment for quality leaders and a steep learning curve for autocratic, ‘boss’ style leaders.
Miller Cole (2019) explains that a lack of innovative desire or skill can leave organisations limping behind their competitors. We know that leadership does not lead to innovation itself, but that the culture carved by leaders is a concrete foundation for employee innovation. The equation is not a hard one to solve: strong leadership leads to strong culture leads to innovative thinking leads to organisational survival.
3. Infinite Mindedness
For an organisation to survive this time, its leaders must have a very clear understanding of its purpose. That is to say, they must understand how the organisation is driving the creation of a better world for its employees and clients. Just as vital is the requirement that leaders have shared this vision and purpose with their teams and that every team member comes on board with and shares it, Dreeke explains that “success come faster when you inspire others to merge their goals with yours, and forge ahead with you, in unison” (p. 3).
Working towards achieving this greater purpose that considers the organisation’s purpose in the greater world is what Simon Sinek (2019) describes as playing the infinite game. He explains that playing in the infinite game means the overall mission or objective is to continue playing - not to win - and that leaders at all levels must make decisions to serve this objective.
He explains that there are five practices leaders must adopt to maintain an infinite minded approach:
Advancing a just cause - the organisation serves the greater good beyond its own bottom line
Build trusting teams - aligning with the work of Brown and Dreeke from earlier
Study your worthy rivals - see what competitors do that works and match them
Prepare for existential flexibility - I focus more on this below
Demonstrate the courage to lead - daring leadership as discussed earlier
I would like to focus on practice four - existential flexibility - and look broadly at some examples of this taking place in our current COVID-19 situation.
“Existential flexibility is the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a just cause” (Sinek, 2019). It is about the innovative skill of leaders and teams that allows them to willingly adjust their practice to extend and sustain their ability to serve the greater organisational purpose.
Importantly, existential flexibility requires a clear and firm understanding of the organisation’s purpose beyond its own operation. If you lead an organisation with the main goal of turning a larger profit than the previous quarter, to open more sites by the end of the financial year, or to decrease expenditure to protect the profit margin, then existential flexibility will be difficult to master. A stronger moral and social purpose is important because it allows the way in which business is conducted to change. Rather than fighting to maintain business as usual, it becomes obvious that change must take place to continue fulfilling the greater purpose.
Examples of industries with organisations with existential flexibility during this current pandemic include:
Doctors shifting from physical to virtual patient interactions to maintain the safety of staff and other clients while serving the just cause to protect and help the sick;
Banks pausing mortgage and loan repayments to support struggling clients during the pandemic, believing more in their long term client wellbeing and continue patronage than the short term profit losses they will experience;
Schools and teachers advocating for online learning to protect staff and students from unnecessary interaction while continuing to fulfil their greater purpose of nurturing and educating young people;
Online education platforms offering free and unrestricted access for schools and students during this period of remote teaching and learning to achieve their just cause, being to enhance the quality of teaching and learning that already takes place in school; and,
Supermarkets adjusting trading hours and methods of operation to maintain their moral purpose to provide food and essential items to all members of the community.
Unfortunately, some organisations have needed to cease operating in this time. In some instances, this might have been unavoidable due to already existing troubles. However, in most instances organisations could be saved if leaders maintained an infinite mindset.
For example, in his book “Leaders Eat Last”, Sinek (2014) tells the story of how CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, Bob Chapman, ensured his organisation survived the 2008 recession. He had already garnered trust from his employees, so when he announced that every employee would be required to take four weeks of unpaid leave at some point during the year to reduce overall expenses, saying that “it's better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot,” his employees responded positively. They knew they were being protected by their leader and were willing to take a short term hit. The trust within the team also meant that some employees who could afford more time without pay took additional leave to help their colleagues who were, in turn, required to take less unpaid time.
I wonder whether, if more leaders and organisations took an approach similar to Chapman, we could minimise the total harm caused to people by sharing the load across our organisations and industries?
Leaders, this is the time to step up and show up for your teams. Be daring in your approach, practice empathy and compassion, be innovative and take an infinite mindset.
If your goal is profit, you will lose.
If your goal is to survive and protect those in your organisation, you have a chance.
If your goal is to continue to shape a better world through your organisation’s work, then surviving and protecting your teams are both essential, and you will find a way to make it happen.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. UK: Penguin Random House.
Dreeke R. (2017). The Code of Trust. USA: St. Martin’s Press.
Miller Cole, B. (2019). Innovate Or Die: How A Lack Of Innovation Can Cause Business Failure. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/biancamillercole/2019/01/10/innovate-or-die-how-a-lack-of-innovation-can-cause-business-failure/#5336f27b2fcb
Rizki, M., Parashakti, R. & Saragih, L. (2019). The Effect of Transformational Leadership and Organizational Culture Towards Employees’ Innovative Behaviour and Performance. International Journal of Economics and Business Administration, 7(1), 227-239.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. USA: Penguin.
Sinek, S. (2019). The Infinite Game. USA: Penguin.