4 Leadership Lessons to Emerge Stronger Through Adversity

COVID-19 has been the great leadership equalizer. It has unmasked imposters and revealed dormant leadership strengths.

oe-Michelli-book-coverDuring the pandemic, many leaders stewarded their businesses through unrelenting challenges and unchartered territory. They approached these crises from their bedrooms, not their boardrooms, and most found themselves uttering previously unspoken words like pandemic, new normal, unprecedented, and pivot. Everyone was navigating the same storm, albeit in different boats.

At the beginning of 2020, I started writing a book about a consulting client of mine – GODIVA Chocolatier. By February, despite a collaboration agreement with GODIVA and a publishing agreement with McGraw-Hill, my planned book had stalled. Visits to GODIVA’s Café in New York and the GODIVA manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania were put on hold due to “an abundance of caution.”

Despite that negative disruption, I unexpectedly found myself positively engaged on COVID-19 task forces for other clients (mostly C-suite leadership teams at globally recognized brands). Those opportunities gave me a front-row seat to vastly differing leadership behaviors. I observed some leaders who were too slow to act (relying on participatory approaches, which were not well-suited for crisis). I watched some leaders make rash decisions in the absence of data. Fortunately, I also saw other leaders demonstrate effective approaches. As I worked with these varied teams, I asked senior leaders to share their insights on mistakes, strategies, successes, and lessons they were learning during COVID-19.

Through 2020, I engaged in conversations with more than 140 remarkable leaders (clients and their colleagues) who navigated lockdowns, chaos, social unrest, looting, re-openings, and more. These leaders were guiding for-profit, nonprofit, and public safety organizations. These senior leaders included CEOs and Presidents of companies like Verizon, Verizon, Kohl’s, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Farmers Insurance, Marriott, Zappos, Dairy Queen, Goodwill, United Way, and the Salvation Army.

While my GODIVA book wasn’t going to be written in 2020, insights and lessons that emerged from my leadership conversations enabled the release of my new McGraw-Hill book titled Stronger Through Adversity. Here are a few key insights shared in that book. They are offered to help you steward your family, team, company, or community thrive through and beyond the pandemic: 

Self-care is Not Selfish

Since you’re not a superhero, you  need exercise, sleep, and emotional support. Had the pandemic had been short-lived, you could have gotten by with a few 20-hour workdays. Unfortunately, leaders can’t confuse self-care with selfishness because sacrificing your life and needs sends a terrible message to your team and signals that overwork is expected.

Individuals with whom I spoke, even Stacy Salvi a senior leader at the movement tracking company Fitbit, had to make conscious efforts to break away from Zoom calls, clear their heads, breathe deeply, move around, and turn off their phones, laptops, and news outlets. Other leaders shared that they felt so responsible for problem resolution that they didn’t find time for themselves or their families. i Ph.D., the CEO of the Nurse Leader Network, and a Chief Nurse Executive at a major healthcare system in Los Angeles, put it this way, “Like other senior leaders, I felt like I couldn’t leave the hospital or step away from patient care. For example, I worked 52 consecutive days with no days off. It was hard to take time away when so many people came to me for solutions. It was also difficult to express weakness—so I put on my emotional armor to seem strong.”

This intense external focus seemed to be working for Chris until she could no longer ignore the large price she was paying for poor self-care. According to Chris, “Everything took a backseat except what was happening in the hospital. I was no longer teaching, recording my regular podcasts, or running my Nurse Leader Network. Since my husband also works at a hospital, our kids struggled in school. It was like Lord of the Flies at my house—with our children virtually stranded on an uninhabited island.” Fortunately, according to Chris, a colleague, “said she felt like she should get the Worst Mother of the Year award and every other leader with a child at home expressed that same feeling. In that moment, we knew we hadn’t taken care of ourselves or our broader priorities. So, we assigned accountability partners to make sure we were all taking respite. Every week we’d talk to our partner about what we did to re-energize, and they would make sure we were taking days off and truly disconnecting from the work. It’s amazing how we as leaders can get so pulled into the importance of our work that we can lose ourselves and deprioritize our families in the process.”

Open Your Eyes, Ears, and Mouth

Where your business plan or tactical roadmap diverged from the business terrain, you needed to trust the terrain. Successful crisis leaders heed the wisdom of first-century philosopher Epictetus when he observed, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” During times of chaos, uncertainty, and tumult, customers and team members have a greater need to be heard and seen. Effective leadership involves customer pulse surveys, hypervigilance to consumer behavior trends, and active listening. Human behavior changes when people are scared. Team members and customers reward leaders that seek to understand their stated, and unstated wants, needs, anxieties, and desires.

Make it Personal

While anxiety is personal; technology is not. Technology was an essential tool for tamping down fear and enabling commerce during 2020. However, technology wasn’t an end unto itself. Invariably, Zoom, cashless payment, mobile ordering, and collaboration tools saved businesses during the pandemic, but those tools couldn’t erase uncertainty, social detachment, or isolation. Given the angst, tumult, and lifestyle disruption that resulted from the pandemic, leaders needed to supplement technology with compassion and empathy. Leaders asked videoconference participants to gather emotionally significant items and share them during meetings. They sent care packages to their teams and invited team members to virtual happy hours. These leaders realized they needed to inspire all team members to deliver technology-aided/human-powered solutions during and beyond the crisis.

Define and Design for Impact

Crisis defines character. Crisis leadership shapes a leader’s legacy. Effective leaders define how they want to be remembered after the crisis ends. They take action to deliver their desired impact. All of us will leave a legacy. The question is whether that legacy will be by default or design.

No one knows when this pandemic will come to an end. From my vantage point, that day will not come soon enough. I suspect the pandemic will be eradicated by widespread vaccinations. However, I also anticipate that other challenges will befall leaders in the years ahead. I believe leaders who apply the four principles outlined above will endure and help others emerge Stronger Through Adversity!

Joseph Michelli

Joseph Michelli

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., is a certified customer experience professional, one of Global Guru’s top three experts on customer service, the author of nine business books about companies like Airbnb, Starbucks, Zappos, Mercedes-Benz, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. In addition to being a Wall Street Journal and New York Times #1 bestselling author, Joseph helps leadership teams improve the experiences they provide for team members and customers. He also is an internationally sought-after keynote speaker on leadership and customer or patient experience.

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