Reflections of Our CEO: Leadership Lessons from a Global Pandemic

The view to my right, off the starboard side of a BC Ferry is magnificent. The ocean reflects the summer sky and is textured by the warm breeze. The distant mountains on the Sunshine Coast fade into the hazy distance, a towering reminder of the unceasing patience of nature. Despite my surroundings, a knot still sits at my solar plexus—a sign of the tension that’s been present since March 15.

How poetic that it was on the Ides of March that our family decided to cancel our spring break vacation—a trip to Mexico to which we’d been counting down for a year or more. Just two days later, the Provincial government declared massive curbs on public amenities and businesses, and encouraged citizens to stay home as much as they could. They avoided the word ‘lockdown,’ preferring instead to keep the public informed, make recommendations, and trust the intelligence and goodwill of ‘John Q Public.’ They were right: British Columbia has weathered the first wave of COVID-19 better than any other Province, any American state, or any European country. 

Did you expect the best or the worst?

This is one lesson the global coronavirus pandemic is teaching us. On the one hand, it’s a simple reminder to treat people with respect and dignity. When people are respected for their intelligence and asked to step up in support of one another, they invariably do. Consider Rebecca Solnit’s insights in A Paradise Built in Hell. Her research revealed countless acts of community connecting and personal generosity in the wake of such disasters as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and 9/11. 

In the early days of the pandemic, nobody was sure how things might unfold. As clinicians sought to understand the nature and danger of the virus, entrepreneurs and CEOs sought to assess the impact on their businesses, and Executive Directors sought to understand how their programs and services might be affected. Early on, nobody had sufficient information to be certain of their decisions. As a result, a number of our clients’ leadership teams fell into a fierce debate between two irreconcilable positions.

Some board members and executives were keen to ‘cut hard, cut fast’. They sought to quickly take measures to ‘right size’ their organizations and defend against the challenges they forecasted would emerge as the pandemic deepened. (Let’s call this approach ‘better safe than sorry.’) This approach is valuable because it provides certainty and clarity, while conserving resources for what might unfold. It values decisiveness and action. It fits with our sense of hierarchical leadership, in which the senior most people are charged with the responsibility of making the hard decisions. ‘The buck stops at the top.’

On the other hand, some client teams were comfortable deferring decisions until more information was available. (Let’s call this approach ‘emergent,’ drawing from the language of systems theory.) This second approach is valuable because it retains capacity, so the organization is equipped to seize the inevitable opportunities that emerge during hard times—or at least as the challenges recede. It values consultation and communication. This fits with a relational approach to leadership, in which decisions may be delegated or distributed to those closest to the impacts of those decisions.

How did you decide to decide?

Proponents of the first approach tended to be critical of the latter approach, seeing it as a lack of decisiveness or an absence of the courage strong leadership requires. Proponents of the latter approach could be equally critical, arguing that deciding too early boxes the organization in, when in reality the context was still taking shape.

Evidence must complement the wisdom of experience.

In reality, neither approach seems to have had been universally better. Clients’ relative success is more likely a result of understanding which approach to use at what time—or more accurately, to retain an emergent and communicative style until it’s clear to more experienced leaders that a decision must be made. The challenge here is not necessarily what the decisions are, but when to take them. Deciding not to decide proved over and over again to be a very challenging leadership position to hold. But at its best, it’s an insistence that evidence must complement the wisdom of experience.

How would you assess your resilience?

It’s also an approach that requires significant personal and organizational resilience, because decisions must be reviewed and revisited over and over. This discipline can be exhausting—and indeed was for many of our clients. Interestingly, those that were able to navigate emergent approaches more successfully tended either to be small, entrepreneurial organizations (where uncertainty is already a norm) or large, process-driven enterprises (where individuals’ capacity is freed up by organizational systems). Those that generally struggled were the ones in the middle—those that rely on extensive dialogue to develop consensus among management before decisions are taken.

Another point of struggle was the debate about where to set each organization’s ceiling of accountability. Should leaders look after their business priorities? Their staff and their families? Their communities more broadly? This most often came down to a debate over values—a debate too few leaders are willing (or perhaps able) to undertake.

Will you hold yourself accountable to community?

On this, we at Junxion and most of our clients come down squarely on the side of community. During this pandemic, it has become impossible to ignore the profound disparities in our society. While the ‘haves’ shelter in place, working comfortably from home, and ordering groceries and other supplies for delivery to their doorsteps, the ‘have-nots’ are out in community, carrying personal risk to keep the wheels of commerce rolling. And of course we know that ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ can more often than not be replaced by ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites,’ so severe is the association in our society between race equity and economic justice.

We each have an obligation to look at our shared problems.

Leaders in companies, community organizations, and in elected office have an obligation to look straight at this problem and do their work to redress it. That starts with seeking first to understand; it continues through the courageous conversations with colleagues about what can be done; and it won’t end until each and every one of us is focused on change, equity, and Reconciliation.

As the world turns through COVID-19 toward a second wave and beyond, this is the wise leadership we all need and deserve. 

 

Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. Reach him via [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *