COVID-19 could define your leadership legacy. Here’s how to make it a good one.

Micromanagement and ignoring people's fears won't cut it.

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Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash
Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash

Obviously, all anyone can think about right now is the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic.  At the time of this being drafted, over 25% of the globe is under some kind of lockdown. We are measuring our preparedness by how much toilet paper we have (??) People are legitimately scared for the safety of themselves, and loved ones.

The impacts of COVID-19 will also be felt by every single industry – for better or for worse.  

This poses a truly unique opportunity (buried within an intense challenge) for leadership. Like it or not, your legacy is at a crossroads.  This crisis will be a benchmark for how you’re remembered, and how your team believes in you from here on out. It won’t be the only benchmark, but yes – it’s a big one.

Despite all of the doom and gloom, you can turn this into an opportunity to strengthen your teams, build trust, and create raving fans within your ranks.  

Here’s how:

Communicate early, often, and sincerely: Consciously or not, people will turn to their company for guidance, and to take a pulse on how seriously leadership is taking the crisis. 

Make sure that you are putting out regular communications – daily, if you can – even if you don’t have an update.  In (strange) times like these, any communication that you put out will be more about optics and risk mitigation rather than actually transmitting information (though information is imperative, too).  

It’s perfectly fine to say, “nothing new today, but we are constantly watching for an update in guidance” with a reminder to look after one another, and themselves.  Just being present in this way can be reassuring. 

While you’re at it, always be as transparent as possible about what’s going on.  It’s a sure bet that your teams are already weighing what the worst-case scenario is.  By being transparent, you can confirm what they suspect, and refute the gossip. This will go a long way in message control.  

The channels you use also matter. E-mail may reach larger audiences immediately, thereby making it very efficient. But don’t be afraid to round that out with some other gems in your toolkit such as sending out a quick “hang in there” video from your phone, or commenting on the intranet (such as Yammer).  Your teams need to see that you’re human and that you understand their fears right now. Ditch the urge to make it curated and polished – stuff like that isn’t as resonant anyway. It doesn’t take much clearance or vetting to say “we’re in this together”, and can pay dividends in your teams’ trust in you.

Mega bonus points if you can coordinate a virtual town hall or other forum to be present and responsive in real-time to your teams.  Yes, there may be parts that are uncomfortable. Vulnerability is scary here. But everyone is already scared.  Let them know you’re with them, and not against them. 

Give up the ruse: If your organization with key workers that is not under lockdown or a remote working scheme, “Nothing to see here!” is not going to fly in this crisis.  

There is definitely a need to express support to your teams, reassure them that you are being proactive to the situation, and tamp down hysteria where it’s overblown. Of course you should apply steadiness where you can.

However, saying that you or the company has a handle on things, or clinging to a “business as usual” refrain will convey a tone-deafness that might lead to employee retaliation, internally and externally (everyone’s a journalist in the age of Twitter!).  Even if operations can go on as normal, the climate is definitely not normal. Don’t insult your workforce’s (emotional or literal) intelligence by claiming it is. 

What to do instead: Acknowledge that people are frightened. Use communications channels available to you to explain WHY operations must go along as normal, how their interests are being considered in those decisions, and not just that they must go along with things as normal while towing the party or legal line.

Validate that these are strange times.  Assure that you’re doing all you can to listen to guidance, be proactive, and are willing to shift approach if the pandemic evolves. A quick tip that really helps with this is to communicate as if you’re talking with one scared person even if you’re communicating to thousands. Because there’s a pretty hefty chance that you’re dealing with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of scared people.

Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

Be visible: For many organizations, the image of leadership scampering up into their ivory tower while the peasants “eat cake” is a persistent and toxic thing.  But organizations and leaders have a chance now more than ever to say, “actually, I’m right here with you.”

See the first point about ways that you can show up outside of company-wide emails, but also listen to the tone and direction of your workforce.  Where are they showing up, communicating, and sharing ideas and resources? Go there, and go there often. 

This is less frightening for leaders who are already visible and immersed in their communities.  For those who are not, yes, it will be harder – but there’s no time like the present to turn the ship around and turn skeptics into raving fans and loyal followers. 

Don’t micromanage remote workers: For goodness’ sake, this should go without saying… but just in case you needed to hear it: these are not normal times.  A lot of people cannot work as normal.

For those with children, they are expected to be working for you while also being schoolteachers, coaches, chefs, chief operations officers, hunter/gatherers… you get the idea.  

Even if there are no children involved, there may be pets, spouses causing disruption. 

If they live alone, well… that’s a lot of time alone.  That’s incredibly difficult and goes against how humans are wired to operate.

But please fight the inclination to keep score of who has it worse/more difficult than anyone else, because everyone is experiencing this individually and differently.

Here’s what is consistent across the board: these are incredibly bizarre times that we are living in.  

No matter what circumstances people have going on at home, everyone may be dealing with isolation, anxiety, anger, loneliness, struggling with not being able to see loved ones they’re concerned about, and terror that their jobs could be taken away in this uncertainty.  For some, government responses may be inadequate, or may not reach people quickly enough – if at all. 

Who really cares if a child squeaks in the background? My cats are becoming workplace celebrities because of their frequent (vocal!) appearances on work calls. So be it. It inserts a little much-needed levity. Let’s find that levity where we can these days, shall we?


Across all of these tips, here’s what you really need to remember if you want to make your legacy a positive one as people recall, “I remember during COVID-19 when…”:

Show empathy.  Communicate often.  Acknowledge the turbulence.  Validate (and share in!) their humanity.

The rest is just logistics. 

And, of course, do what you can to take care of yourself.  Yes, you’ve got teams to look after, but you can’t show up for them if you’re in tatters. 

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