Published in Forbes: Leadership is Responsibility

By, Stuart R. Levine

“Leadership is responsibility.” Today’s COVID-19 catastrophe makes Peter Drucker’s quote incredibly relevant. As the pandemic radically changes ways that companies do business, people continue to be uncertain about the future. Fear abounds. Leaders are responsible for even more now as their employees, including their senior managers, are facing unprecedented levels of change and stress. Massive unemployment has replaced a tight labor market. Office settings and the related culture are replaced by working at home. For many employees, climbing the corporate ladder is replaced by a worry about continuing to be able to work and to provide for the basic needs, safety, and health of loved ones. 

Leadership’s consideration of “going back to work” is a strategic exercise that impacts everyone’s health and safety. Many companies do not see themselves back in offices for months or longer. A recent Gartner CFO survey indicated that about 75% of CFOs plan to move at least 5% of their pre-crisis on-site employees to permanently remote positions. More recent indicators place the number higher. Companies must prepare for more change in the coming months than they have seen over the last 20 years. 

With this unprecedented level of disruption, a leader’s values come into sharp focus. They send powerful messages through words and deeds about what is important for the organization. People look to them for guidance and comfort. Trust is paramount. Outstanding leaders in normal times are expected to exhibit vision, authenticity, confidence, and courage. Now their humanity, compassion, and humility are fully front and center. It is these values that generate trust. I have seen these women and men communicate and share of themselves as human beings and encourage their team members to do the same. They are connecting at a personal level to respond to employees’ visceral needs, appreciating that for many, suddenly working from home creates difficulty and uncertainty. Their compassion and understanding lead them to address people’s concerns honestly and fully. 

Great leaders are confident, while being self-confident enough to be humble. Humility is a strength that causes a leader to be alert, nimble, aware, and knowing that the answers mostly reside collectively in others. Humility means that the way forward through this crisis is an enterprise-wide exercise that engages all constituencies and recognizes the design of the new workforce will require hard listening and responses.  No one person has all the answers. Instead of instructing people on what to do, through word and deed the leader must communicate relentlessly to inspire curiosity, creativity, and collaboration to capture the best thinking of everyone. Transformation of work streams require a strong embrace of data and discipline. People want to make a difference and know they matter. In normal times, leaders harness this energy to reach the organizational goals, but in these pandemic times, the organizational energy must be harnessed to reimagine the business and the workplace to emerge stronger in a post-COVID world.

Great leaders see seeds of opportunity, even in a crisis. In many ways, this disruption is turning every business into a quasi-start-up. The new emerging and evolving “normal” could require re-examining revenue models that worked just months ago to uncover increased efficiency and growth. Some companies may face a startup-like pivot to build completely new models. These times require everyone to try new things, fail and succeed at new things, and be transparent about the result. This takes leadership based on trust that cultivates and directs the talent within your organization. This is an opportunity to emerge from the crisis with your people rededicated to the company’s mission and to create stronger employee and customer loyalty.

Employees must adapt rapidly to changing times, and organizations must make rapid decisions to survive.  The transition of migrating work from a defined office to home, in a short period of time created opportunities for global bad actors to disrupt organizations. As you look forward to the next six months, a strong cyber-security program should be introduced throughout the organization to ensure the integrity of your IP and workstreams. 

Agility, adaptability, and resilience are indispensable and are dependent on the culture you have built. Leaders have a responsibility to provide learning and tools to develop employees for the changing skill requirements. Employees are taking advantage of learning opportunities to meet the demand for services that require new skills and innovation to face this new world. 

People want leaders who can communicate and recognize results. They want to be part of a common purpose. Great leaders can help their people see that they are not alone in dealing with the worrisome effects of this crisis. They inspire collaboration, common purpose, and future possibility. They have responsibility to inspire trust that everyone working together will create a better future. Hope is the antidote to fear.  Embrace your company’s and your personal values to succeed.