Leadership Library Review: Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic

April 2020

What I Am Learning from My Clients

In the weeks since the pandemic began I have been astounded, heartened and elevated by everything that my leadership coaching and consulting clients are teaching me and – insofar as I am a hub connecting all of them – that they are teaching each other about developmental leadership during the Covid-19 crisis.

Between the wisdom I’ve culled from them, plus a few other resources, I’ve synthesized below seven basic best practices for deepening leadership presence and increasing adaptive capacity throughout this disorienting period.  (If you are also looking for practical strategies for “planning” amidst so much uncertainty, check out my next blog post and if you’re ready to look beyond the crisis to its transformative potentials see this post.)  I offer the following as a checklist of reminders to support your work in our uniquely unpredictable world right now:

  1. Stay well, and stay open. What remains as true in a pandemic, as at any other more normal time, is that effective leadership starts with your effectiveness at leading your own life.  In a moment like this, it begins with you doing everything you can to stay healthy in body and mind (see a list of 12 strategies here) so that you can be of service to others over the long haul.  Focusing on your wellness – especially sleep, nutrition, exercise and spending time in nature – will keep you open, agile and in a strong growth mindset.  (And if you are working from home with kids, I recommend the “Well-Being Resources for Parents” series from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.)  Every single one of us must stay as creative as we can these days because when we are reactive, our perspectives on past experiences are actually what’s driving our decisions, and by definition the past does not necessarily apply in our unprecedented circumstances!  We make our best decisions when we’re self-aware, resilient and “above the line.”
  2. Feel your emotions.  It is normal and expected that we will all have feelings of fear, overwhelm, anger, sadness or inadequacy – or a combo – throughout the pandemic.  Personally, as well as professionally.  To some extent or another, we are also each grieving our former lives, on top of everything else. Try not to judge your emotions, and allow yourself to feel them.  Most often, difficult emotions are signals to slow down.  As a leader, you can slow down by delegating more of your responsibilities to colleagues in order to free up psychological space for yourself; e.g., show your teams that you believe in them by – at least temporarily – handing off important work to them.  You can also slow down by: reaching out to trusted colleagues, friends or support professionals for candid conversations; meditating, using mindfulness apps, listening to short guided breathing or body scan meditations, or trying the very efficient “RAIN” strategy; playing music that centers you; doing a few yoga poses or other grounding forms of exercise; and whatever else works for you.  And sometimes you can slow down just by literally slowing down!
  3. Adopt three simple habits. Eminently applicable right now are Jennifer Garvey Berger’s three “simple habits for complex times” (my review of the book by that title is here). The three simple habits we can bring to every meeting or interaction that help us navigate complexity and uncertainty are: (1) asking different questions; (2) taking multiple perspectives; and (3) seeing systems.  These simple habits are useful both at work and at home.  You can hear Jennifer explain them in this podcast interview, and you can watch her describe specific frameworks, models and tools for working with complexity in these very short YouTube videos.  If what we are experiencing at this juncture with Covid-19 is propelling us into a “new abnormal,” the sooner you adopt these habits, the better prepared you will be for the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions ahead.
  4. Communicate well and frequently. There are some best practices of verbal and nonverbal communication during a crisis.  Most importantly, be authentic; you’ll lose essential credibility if you come across to your staff and stakeholders as disingenuous or as projecting some sort of different persona.  If it feels true to you, and if you can remain calm and confident while you do it, be honest about your own feelings about the pandemic.  To the extent you are able, publicly empathize with others, and demonstrate your compassion for their situations by taking all feasible concrete steps to alleviate their concerns.  (Empathy is a skill you can learn.)  Share facts bluntly: don’t attempt to sugar-coat them, and update critical information as soon as it becomes available.  When there is good news, share that, too.  In times of rapid change, you cannot “over-communicate” with your teams.  (If you’re looking for a role model to see what this looks and sounds like, a leader who is superb at crisis communication is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo.)
  5. Try new techniques for transformation. Employ the transformative power of navigating particular polarities (i.e. seeming opposites – which are actually two interdependent parts of one larger whole – that can be leveraged for success over time, explained further here).  One relevant example is managing the polarity of realism and optimism: e.g., now that your agency’s emergency and work-from-home measures have been taken, begin spending significant time on a regular basis identifying some of the unexpected opportunities presented by this crisis.  Another polarity is engaging in short-term thinking and long-term thinking: e.g., create small, accessible short-term goals that give everyone an immediate sense of progress, while also designing larger experiments that might generate surprising innovations for adapting to the pandemic and shaping the future.  Keep asking questions like: What are we observing?  What are we learning from what we see?  What assumptions do we notice we’ve been making up until now that – as it turns out – may not be true?  What can we explore doing with this new information?
  6. Forgive.  Remember that accountability and forgiveness go hand in hand, because they help cultivate a healthy culture of psychological safety (Dan Harris discusses several aspects of psychological safety with Brene Brown in this podcast which I review here).  A crisis will offer you extra practice at forgiving yourself, and at forgiving lots of other people.  Even the smartest, most competent and conscientious among us are inevitably going to (continue…) making mistakes, oversights and outright failures.  This is OK.  When we are acting in good faith, what matters is not so much the mistakes we make, but what we do when we discover them.  As best you can, get curious rather than judgmental about what happened, regardless of whether you made the mistake or someone else did.  If it’s yours, take responsibility, apologize sincerely, describe what you’re learning, and explain what you’ll do differently going forward.  In either case, forgive one another, get behind the new plan and move on, so that productive teamwork can resume in a psychologically safe atmosphere.
  7. Take constructive risks. FYI, one mistake you really can prevent is tying yourself into knots in a futile bid to avoid making any mistakes at all.  These are times for exploring possibilities by taking calculated, constructive risks that produce new information you can learn from even if the results aren’t what you’d hoped for or expected.  “Wins” are only declared in retrospect!  While experimenting with risks, be gentle with yourself and others, such as in the ways described by the very-down-to-earth meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg in this 20-minute episode of “10% Happier LIVE”When in doubt: trust your heart first, then refine with your head, and be bold.

Here are a few leadership coaching questions, if welcome and resonant:

  • What is nourishing your heart (your love, your courage, your gratitude) these days? How could you make room to savor those things even more?
  • What are you noticing right now about your leadership (at work and at home)? What strengths of yours are surprising you?  How could you further lean into those strengths?
  • With what noble qualities did you “show up” as a leader (at work and at home) today? How do you intend to show up tomorrow?
  • What would you most like to be able to say about your leadership someday when you look back on the Covid-19 crisis?
  • What clues are you gathering now about who you will be as a leader in six months, or a year, or eighteen months, etc.?
  • How is your response to the pandemic helping you to clarify your life purpose?
  • Who are you becoming, as a whole multidimensional person and as a global citizen, in this interconnected world?

I wish wellness, ease and strength to you and your loved ones and your colleagues – near and far – throughout the Covid-19 crisis and always.  May you be in good health and resilient spirits as you continue making meaningful contributions to those who so profoundly benefit from your leadership.  –SMP

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