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March 30, 2020 //

Leading During This Pandemic

As this is written, the world has fallen victim to the effects of a global pandemic. Radical action is being taken to stem the spread of COVID-19, three-quarters of a million are confirmed sick, and as of today, over 36,000 have died.   As a result, global financial markets are in crisis, having lost more than 30% of their value, and appear to be declining every day. Millions of service workers have been laid off, and there is great uncertainty as to when (or if) they will be able to return to work. Many countries and states within the USA have issued shelter-in-place orders, and most of us are either suffering from cabin fever, or unprecedented burn-out (for those who are employed by “essential businesses”, such as hospitals and grocery stores).

Essentially, overnight your world has been turned upside down:

  • You are now required to work from home
  • You are required to self-quarantine
  • Your kids are home-schooling (and with you 24×7)
  • You can no longer relax/unwind at your favorite restaurant/bar
  • Travel and celebrations (weddings, graduations, birthdays, etc.) that may have been in the works for weeks, months or years – cancelled
  • Your gym is closed
  • Your place of worship is closed
  • Your grocery store is constantly out of essential items (like fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, bread) AND you feel like you’re taking your life in your hands while you’re there.
  • (If you’re a woman), your hair and acrylic nails have seen better days
  • You can’t find a roll of toilet paper to save your life

All of this rapid change, coupled with high degrees of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are having the following impacts on our mental health:

  • The constant barrage of the media and social media are setting us back to our reptilian brains, where we obsess about taking care of life’s necessities (food, water, shelter, etc.)
  • The social distancing is making us feel lonely and isolated
  • Worrying about the future is causing us to sleep less or sleep poorly, thus making it more difficult for us to think clearly
  • The changes to our exercise routines are causing us to gain weight, lose muscle mass, and inevitably interfere with healthy brain chemistry

If You’re Leader, This Crisis is Even More Challenging

It’s bad enough to be a bystander during this global tragedy, but being a leader comes with an extra set of pressures:

  • You have a team of people who are freaking out, and looking to you for answers (which you don’t have)
  • More than likely your business is in decline, and your team members can’t help but think “How much longer will I have a job?”, causing morale and productivity to decline immensely
  • What worked in yesterday’s economy may not work in today’s, and your business model  may be morphing with record speed
  • You are being forced to make gut-wrenching decisions, such as furloughing or firing team members
  • You find yourself trying to lead a virtual team (for perhaps the first time)
  • You are being forced to rapidly absorb a tremendous amount of information, and dissect fact from fiction
  • You are trying to establish a new “normal”, and to get your team back to having some confidence in it
  • You are grasping for ways to communicate with (and calm) your team, without the benefit of face-to-face communication/touch.
  • As a leader who loves and cares for your team, it likely feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Let’s face it, it’s a s***-show of epic proportions.

As such, you may be inclined to fall back on default behaviors. After all, your early leadership training taught you what to do in a crisis right?

Probably not.

The Traditional Management Approach to Leading in A Crisis

Many of us have been taught that the best leadership style during a crisis is “command-and-control”:

  • Definition of command-and-control – “A leadership style this is top-down, authoritative, and directive, a “do it or else” style. Often bureaucratic, relies heavily on process and procedure to get work done and control the organization’s employees. Can feel heavy handed and micro-managing to employees.”

And it may be natural for your team members to feel helpless during a global crisis and seek someone, like a senior leader, to swoop in and fix everything for them. Additionally, as leaders, we may get a huge sense of personal satisfaction from taking charge and stepping in to “save the day”.

Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages to the traditional management approach:

  • Command-and-Control leadership generally leaves our team members feeling marginalized (as if their opinions don’t matter), which will eventually amplify their feelings of helplessness.
  • Since Command-and-Control leadership is 100% focused on external motivation, it relies on the stick to be present in order to guarantee productivity. Ultimately, nobody will want to work without first being told what to do.
  • Command-and-Control leadership only works in the short-term; it does nothing to buy us long-term loyalty, commitment, or innovation.
  • Last but not least, Command-and-Control leadership is exhausting for leaders; it puts us squarely in the middle of all decision-making, and makes us the bottle-neck for initiating and finishing work at the team level.  Essentially, team members become addicted to looking “up” before proceeding, thereby sucking leaders dry of their time, energy…and sanity.

 What Makes an Agile Leader Different?

On the other hand, the leaders that succeed during this Pandemic will most certainly be Agile.

So what is an Agile Leader?

Definition of An Agile Leader“Agile leaders exhibit a distinct openness to the ideas and innovations of their team members. With a passion for learning, a focus on developing individuals, and a strong ability to define and communicate a shared vision, they possess all of the skills necessary to successfully inspire others, and become a change agent within any organization.” – Brian Rabon, Founder, Center For Agile Leadership®.

Agile Leaders choose to embody the values and principles of Agile (listed in the next paragraph). In fact, they not only adopt the values and principles as their own, they also work strategically to infuse them into the culture of their organizations, their teams, and themselves.

Core Values/Principles of Agile Leadership:

  1. Be People-centric (favor interactions and individuals over policies and processes)
  2. Routinely Inspect and Adapt (embrace routine pivoting)
  3. Favor Collaborative (over Command-and-Control) Leadership
  4. Exhibit Transparency (both business and emotional)
  5. Embrace Risks/Experimentation
  6. Ensure that Core Values Guide all Business Decisions
  7. Provide Constant Feedback to Team Members

Now…if you take a good look at each of those 7 values (as compared to those of traditional leadership), hopefully it is evident to you why using them to guide your leadership decisions, particularly during this crisis, will undoubtedly result in the most effective leadership.

 But just in case it’s not self-evident…I have provided some of my reasoning in support of each value below:

    1. Be People-centric (favor interactions and individuals over policies and processes):

The best laid policies/processes just went out the window.  Now it’s all about the people (your staff and your customers) and what they need.  Now (more than ever before) you all share the same “human condition”;  as such, it’s imperative to respond on a human-to-human level.

    2.  Routinely Inspect and Adapt (embrace routine pivoting):

If you can’t embrace the need to constantly inspect and adapt as necessary NOW — when you are swimming in entirely uncharted waters — you will undoubtedly sink.

    3.  Favor Collaborative (over Command-and-Control) Leadership

Not to sound trite…but this Pandemic has proven one thing:  IT TAKES A VILLAGE.  Nobody can handle the  challenges of this crisis on his/her own.  Additionally, your team is already feeling more helpless  than ever before – they desperately NEED to be part of the solutions.

    4.  Exhibit Transparency (both business and emotional)

Now is not the time to posture.  A leader’s authenticity is crucial during times of crisis.  Anything else will be discoverable (or at least debatable) within seconds, which will lead to more feelings of fear, mistrust and insecurity among your team members.  Instead, be clear that you are ALL facing the same sources of anxiety, but that you are in it TOGETHER.

    5.  Embrace Risks/Experimentation

There has NEVER been a better time to encourage the act of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.  Fear of failure (particularly if that fear is imposed by leaders) can squash innovation, creativity…and hope.

    6.  Make sure your organization’s core values guide all business decisions

If you’re going to embrace risk and experimentation, it helps to have your organization’s core values guide those leaps of faith.   When in doubt, the wisest test will always be whether a decision is in line with your organization’s core values.  Consider those values to be your beacon, during an otherwise dark time.

    7.  Provide constant feedback to team members

Continuous feedback is always more effective than ritual performance reviews.  But now, when everyone is taking risks and feeling insecure, continuous feedback is critical.   Your team members need to know, not only how they are doing on a regular basis, but that you are being honest with them AT ALL TIMES.


So here’s challenge for you, Leaders.  Are you still trying to use traditional management tools when this crisis screams for Agile leadership?   Do you agree with my reasoning in this article?  Are there some challenges you’re facing right now that I didn’t address above.  And what can we do to help?

Click here for additional information about Agile Leadership.

Or go our Events page to sign up for our Virtual Class Agile Leadership During a Crisis

Lastly, Brian Rabon (CEO and Founder of the Center for Agile Leadership®) has written a much more comprehensive document on the subject called “Agile Leadership During a Crisis”, which you can obtain for a modest fee by visiting our eStore.

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