Leading Through COVID-19

According to William Shakespeare, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust
upon them.” During times of crises, those who have not been born into power have an increased opportunity to
achieve greatness, and, in the current situation, many may have greatness “thrust upon them.” How then are leaders
supposed to lead in the midst of this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment? Let me share five
actions you should do now in order to emerge on the other side actually better off than before this pandemic started.

1) Leverage the Power of Example, Rather Than an Example of Power – This may seem counterintuitive at first
glance, but now is the time to reassure folks who are understandably very anxious. We need leaders who are calm,
compassionate, and courageous, and who demonstrate those characteristics visibly to their organizations. No one
wants to follow a leader who is responding out of fear and does not demonstrate self-control. Get control of your
amygdala, find a non-public way to vent your anxiety, and calmly provide reassurance to your team that we’ll get
through this together, and that our values as an organization haven’t changed.

2) Lead From the Heart, Not Just From the Head – I’m reminded of decisions great leaders have made in the past
where the decision appeared rational, logical, and well thought through. The problem was that it ignored the
emotional impact the decision would have on the organization or the team. Please don’t make that mistake! While
I’m sure there is enough blame to go around and the Monday Morning Quarterbacks will point the finger at
government, at the World Health Organization, at various countries, etc., we, as leaders, need to resist that urge.
Right now, we need to make ourselves visible to our folks and prioritize their personal health and well-being over
corporate profits. Pick up the phone. Record a video message. Above all, be visible and make the empathic
connection with your people.

3) Be Completely Transparent – As leaders, you need to get ahead of the rumor mill. People are frightened and, in a
VUCA environment, tend to believe the doomsday scenarios that dominate the headlines. Provide regular updates
in every different medium you can think of. Communicate your decisions and the rationale behind them. If you
change your decision tomorrow (see #5 next), no problem. Just communicate your new decision, the rationale
behind it, and why it changed. You can even be transparent about your own emotions, just be careful to have them
completely under control (see #1 above) before you communicate with your team.

4) Decide – Make decisions. In a VUCA environment, you simply cannot wait for complete clarity. The situation is
changing too rapidly. As Tommy Lee Jones said in the movie “Men in Black,” “Imagine what we’ll know
tomorrow.” You must make a commitment to a particular course of action, recognizing that tomorrow new
information may be shared that makes that decision less than ideal. Please make that decision today, and then revisit
it tomorrow. And please communicate the plan to revisit it tomorrow to your folks (see #4 above) so that they know
you’re not waffling, but instead learning and adjusting based on the emerging reality of this pandemic.

5) Build Agility and Resilience – As we all make our way through this pandemic, we will necessarily do things
differently. Business as usual is gone! While that can be very stressful, it also provides us with an opportunity to
test out new ways of accomplishing our work. See that as an opportunity! What capabilities are you being forced to
develop now that could actually pay dividends once this crisis is in the past? How can your new ways of doing
business actually provide a competitive advantage? While no one wishes for a crisis like this, we can still use it to
increase our organizational and personal agility and resilience.

These five actions are important leadership behaviors during normal times as well, but during a major disruption like
we are seeing today with COVID-19, these become even more critical. If you, as a leader, practice these five
behaviors, you improve the odds of your organization not just surviving, but actually thriving when this is all behind
us. Stay healthy and lead!


Dr. Don Gilman is a professional speaker, trainer, and author of “Outsmarting VUCA: Achieving Success in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous World”. With a Doctorate degree in Organization Change, as well as advanced degrees in Engineering Physics, Nuclear Engineering, and Engineering Management, Don is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges organizations face today in capturing new opportunities and staying competitive in this VUCA environment