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Effective leadership can make crises manageable instead of overwhelming. Leading through crisis typically involves adopting a systematic approach to problem-solving: Stages of crisis include issue detection, response, recovery, and learning. Key considerations that can reduce the panic people feel when the world seems to be spiraling often include enacting a more directive style of leadership to clarify priorities, instituting a frequent cadence of communication, and formulating team decision-making structures to help people digest uncertainty and focus their attention on pressing tasks.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need to project not only leadership but humanity. By humanity, I mean attentiveness and awareness of others.
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Indeed, crisis situations are characterized by a chaotic inflow of information with salient time pressure to act. Individuals do not function in isolation but are part of a network that takes shape; decisions made by one person in this pandemic can directly impact the survival of another person. Our coexistence is codependent.
Projecting leadership, therefore, must involve using humanity as a tool for crisis response and recovery. This involves an awareness of and attentiveness to our collective call to action, our individual privilege, and our duty to others.
Our Collective Call to Action
CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, noted during his March 13 interview on the (audience-free) The Late Show With Stephen Colbert that this is the first time where “how I behave so dramatically impacts your health and how you behave so dramatically impacts my health. … I have an obligation now not just for my health, but for your health.”
I want to echo that and expand upon it. Our individual actions as professionals, each from our own vantage point and expertise, will directly affect the success of response and recovery from this crisis. Each person can contribute in unique, valuable ways to resolve the current situation.
Across every aspect of our lives, we can see signs of how these individual contributions are amounting to a call for collective action. Consider, for instance, the roles that your family, friends, and colleagues are fulfilling in society amid the pandemic: Your sister-in-law calls for some advice in advance of her emergency meeting with the mayor of her city to discuss how to support local entrepreneurs while tourism halts. A work colleague reschedules your meeting because he and his wife are managing three small kids at home, and his wife needs to get on a call to coordinate national food banks. A good friend, who is a biologist in Seattle, discusses with you how she’s examining the outer protein of COVID-19 to help with the development of a vaccine while answering almost hourly requests for updates by the National Institutes of Health.
We are being called to action from our own individual spheres of expertise and influence. Across government, businesses, and our private lives, our collective actions will directly affect not only our health but also the tools at our disposal to help address the multifaceted problems that have cascaded as a result of COVID-19.
Consider Your Privilege
It is perhaps because my research, teaching, and consulting focuses on leadership, diversity, and inclusion that I am struck by how differently people are experiencing this crisis. These differences underscore our socioeconomic divides.
Consider how privileged you are, for instance, if you are currently telecommuting in the privacy of your own home. Few times have current events drawn such stark contrasts between those who have the ability to work remotely because they have access to high-speed connectivity and have jobs that do not necessitate their embodied efforts, and those who must report to physical workplaces to earn their hourly pay. If you are in the former group, the current crisis might provide not only a humbling experience but also an opportunity to begin closing the divide between you and the latter group. Ask yourself: What inequities exist within your own company? How are you recognizing and addressing such differences?
Or, consider the impact of school closings. If your kids are attending a school that had the ability to seamlessly move to online platforms because (a) kids already had personal computers, (b) internet access is a common good, and (c) teachers are able to customize their approach thanks to smaller class sizes, then it’s likely your kids attend a private school. But what impact will school closings have on the children who attend public school? Six- to eight-week closures might be made up in the span of a summer, but if the curve flattens and stretches out the duration of this pandemic, school closings could last into the fall. Might that lead to an entire generation of children and young adults to lose a year of schooling?
Embrace Your Duty to Others
Projecting leadership and humanity in this crisis will involve you leveraging your individual expertise to help address the various evolving challenges. It will require your awareness of and attentiveness to how your situation might offer privileges not available to others. Many of us will experience anxiety about our family’s health and the financial struggle that might get worse in the coming months as mortgages come due, groceries are depleted, and layoffs become the norm.
In these times, you can project leadership and humanity by embracing your duty to others. The choices you make in the coming days and weeks will contribute directly to the success of our response and recovery efforts.
The information you forward or retweet will directly shape our ability to cope and adapt to reality. If and how you reach out to others in your community — be it checking in on your neighbors, supporting small and local businesses, or donating to area food banks — will directly determine whether the life you had before COVID-19 will look much like the life we have after COVID-19. By embracing our duty to others, we prepare for our recovery.