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The Legacy of Two COVID-19 Leaders

It’s when things are unusual, in the trenches, in times of crisis, where leaders are distinguished.

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This crisis has left many reeling. Our health and economy jeopardized in one fell swoop. This truly is a challenge to the leader(s) in any organization. How to conduct business amid all the chaos – all the competing information – is daunting.

I’m the observant type. I observe human behavior all the time – it’s my job much of the time – especially those related to leadership behavior. A fantastic time to deeply appreciate and evaluate leaders’ behavior is during a crisis. We’ve had that in spades.

What follows are views of two leaders. It seemed I had no choice but to observe, as I had to experience their respective companies. I have a personal affiliation with both so I can speak about it rather intimately. One leader has several furniture companies – brands you would know. The other has a car dealership. You’d know that brand too. Both businesses have been able to remain open at some level during the pandemic. Here are my observations and experiences of both.

The CEO of the furniture company has responsibility to many – staff, supply chain, customers, etc. Imagine a furniture company and all its components – from the supply chain to factories where the furniture is manufactured, to the customer service offices, to the…. Vast. How does one keep producing with so many variables? Here’s, in part, what he did. Many customer service employees were set-up to work from home, so they remained available. They never stopped taking care of and informing their customers. The factories were closed for three weeks. During that time, they were cleaned, and the CEO, along with his team, studied protocols to reopen safely. Those protocols were followed to the letter. The craftsmen’s workdays were staggered such that physical distancing is maintained. How items safely move from one place to another was also addressed. Masks, gloves, hand sanitizing stations, etc. were all provided. Body temperatures and the usual screening questions were implemented at the door. Their environment was made as safe as possible. The CEO also did a comprehensive, heartfelt video for employees to learn about the new policies and procedures, as well as to provide comfort, empathy, and support. If people still didn’t feel comfortable coming to work or were at high risk – they weren’t obligated to do so. “We’re all in this together,” he said on his video. His thought process – we need a new way to safely conduct business – COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, so what we’re doing now is our path to the future. His focus is on short and long-term strategies. His first and foremost responsibility – to his staff. I don’t work for this company but nevertheless viewed his video because I could. I found it inspirational. I found his approach wonderfully respectful and healthy (both physically and mentally). Not only for the employees, but for me, as their customer. I’ve been informed and feel comfortable, proud even, to use their manufactured goods knowing that it’s being made in such conditions. The CEO’s mindfulness and agility are quite remarkable.

The car dealership leader also has responsibility to many. His business stayed open during the pandemic. I was happy about that because there was a safety, factory recall on one of our family cars. We didn’t want to worry about it so took the car in to get it fixed. Just dropped it off, put the keys in the slot and left. To pick it up, I had to go inside. They recently renovated the dealership. It’s stunning. If you must wait for your car, you have all the conveniences there for you – worktables, Wi-Fi, snacks. It’s quite comfortable. There’s a welcome desk as soon as you walk in, which is a bit hidden as it’s around a corner – blocked from view from the entrance door. Why is that placement important? I had no idea it was there until I was in front of it. I wore my mask. Fortunately. I found myself standing about three feet away from the welcome desk. Neither the greeter nor another staff member at the desk had masks on. They made the choice for me to be less than six feet away. I walked in a large arc around them. Yes, I had my mask on, but my eyes were exposed. I went to the cashier to pay and pick up my fob. Again, the cashier – less than six feet away – didn’t have a mask on. I had to sign a few documents and pay with my credit card. They had pens to share and a stylus pen for the credit card machine, but no hand sanitizer in sight. You may think – there’s no hand sanitizer to be found. Untrue. In my area, shelves were restocked with it. Bought a huge jug myself. Next, the cashier told one of the staff who was at the welcome desk to go get my car. “No thank you,” I said, “I saw my car in the parking lot. I’ll get it myself.” She persisted – “At least let him check your car to see if there is plastic inside to throw away.” “No thank you, I’ll take care of it.” What’s the big deal? He didn’t have a mask on. If he coughed or sneezed in my car, and was an asymptomatic carrier, my car would be compromised. Their customer service would have been wonderful in usual times. But we’re not in usual times. We’re in a pandemic. I wasn’t asking for a lot – just the safety protocols that have been well communicated repeatedly, over and over. Yes, the dealership was gorgeous inside; however, all I felt was disrespected and my safety compromised. The staff there is being compromised. I, the customer, was compromised. I didn’t see a single staff member with a mask on, nor any cleaning products on the communal tables. No protection from the close proximity with each other AND from customers who came in without masks. I wondered if the staff feels disrespected and unsafe too? All I can tell you is what I saw, or rather didn’t see. Not a single staff member was smiling. Not one. I saw one person through the window cleaning his private office – spraying and wiping the surfaces. I observed for a few moments. His expression stopped me in my tracks. He looked afraid. I felt both anger and sadness. Where was the assurance of safety? Where was the mindfulness and agility? Where was the leadership…. or was that the leadership?

The moral of the story: when things are going great – as planned – leadership may be slightly easier. It’s when things are unusual, in the trenches, in times of crisis, where leaders are distinguished. Exceptional versus mediocre.  Ethical versus unethical. Mindful and agile versus ignorant and stagnant. Rock and roll versus just rolling away.

In the legacy of COVID-19 leaders, which one do you aspire to be?

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