A Leadership Challenge – Navigating the balance between hope and despair in times of crisis.

A personal perspective by Keith Gordon

As I sit at home, hopefully free from COVID-19, I have taken time to pause and reflect on how I am feeling. A few things come to mind.

Awe. I’m in awe of the first line responders to this health crisis. Our doctors, nurses, carers and the myriad of people that support them in doing their jobs – caring for the people affected by and most at risk from COVID-19.

Gratitude. I’m grateful that I am able to be at home with family and in a position to maximise our chances of keeping safe and able to contribute in a small way to “flattening the curve”.

Respect. I have huge respect for the leaders out there navigating their organisations through these unprecedented times.

Determination. Our business is very small and certainly not as consequential as those making the news. But I am determined we will see this through this and emerge in a position to serve our clients as they recover.

My mind turns to whether there is any way I can use these feelings – awe, gratitude, respect and determination – for the greater good. I’m not sure. As a partner at Red Emu, I am privileged to work with a lot of great leaders who are doing an incredible job in grappling with this crisis. However, if some thoughts from “outside the bubble” help one or two people then it is worth it.

Rather than be another person telling people what they should be doing, I have been reflecting on how I may have handled this situation as a CEO or senior leader – what advice from an older and wiser version of me would have been helpful? Here goes:

Dear Keith,

So, here you are, in the middle of a crisis. How are you coping? Are you being the leader that your people deserve? Here are a few ideas to think about:

  • Get the business stuff right, and quickly – the greatest service you can deliver to the community at this time is to ensure that your business survives so that it can contribute to the recovery after COVID-19 passes. I know you have struggled at times making the tough calls but it is imperative that you do now and that you move quickly. Do what you need to do to ensure survival – that will create an opportunity to regrow later, to bring back the people who need work, to support the customers who need your product, and return to profitability over the long term. No one’s interests will be served by you not making the decisions that need to be made while you have time to do so. Survival will give your people hope.
  • Quell the competitive urge – from where I sit now, I can see that you are a competitor and enjoy the cut and thrust. Now is the time to use those instincts for good, not just to win. This situation is not about survival of the fittest as was the case in the GFC, it is just about survival. So once you have secured your business, see what you can do for others. Collaborate, cooperate and do whatever you can to ensure that as many organisations can maintain employment, and hope, for as many people as possible. The massive job losses we are seeing are a tragedy and leaders need to work together wherever possible to mitigate this.
  • Have a clear and consistent narrative – people will be looking to you to hear about the future of the business. Be visible and give clarity where you can, but also be comfortable not having all the answers. Your people will appreciate that you don’t know how this is going to play out and will value your candour. Give them hope, don’t avoid the unknowns but definitely don’t focus on despair.

You’re probably reading this and thinking “yes, I’ve got this, this is what I was trained for” and to an extent, you are probably right. But there is more, much more. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can suggest to you some other things that are equally as important as those above.

  • Be open and vulnerable – your people will be experiencing a lot of anxiety. They will be worried about work, about family and many other things. Much will be said in these times about connection to your organisation’s purpose and values. Whilst these are important, people want to feel safe and it is through connection to you as a person, rather than as the leader of the business that you can do this. Share your concerns, listen to the concerns of others and emphasise the most caring part of your nature. This may be a challenge and push you outside your comfort zone but people need it and deserve it.
  • Believe in yourself – you will have dark moments as a leader dealing with incredible impacts of COVID-19. Remember that you are the leader for a reason. Now is not the time to doubt yourself or question whether you are the right person to lead. Own the leadership role, always be positive but honest, put your people first and serve. It is why you are here.
  • Look after yourself – if you are going to lead the organisation through this and have it emerge even stronger than it is now, you need to ensure you don’t succumb to physical and mental exhaustion. Lean on family, friends and trusted colleagues for support. You may be surprised but they will all be pleased to have the opportunity to help. Limit the negativity from social media, it just feeds despair. You could even call one of those consultants at Red Emu – they are always up for a chat!

In closing, my advice is to draw inspiration from those fighting this pandemic head on, be grateful that you are in a position to help so many people navigate the uncertainty, show respect to those out there doing the same thing – support them and lean on them, and dig deep for that determination to see this through.

Remember, your legacy from this time will be determined by how you support and care for your people. Who knows what the “new normal” for business will be after this is over. One thing is for sure though, it will require great leadership. Be part of that.

Kind regards

Your older self