Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic (and Samwise Gamgee)

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Effective management involves a clear and unambiguous commitment by all concerned to foster a culture that embraces the need for constant learning across the organization. This, of course, was true long before coronavirus became a household term. Nevertheless, stating that the business world has learned plenty of lessons since the wildfire spread of COVID-19 is as much of an understatement as pointing out that the need for constant learning across organizations has never been greater.

While participating in an informal survey of early pandemic-driven lessons learned by members of the leadership council of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, Jon Hantho, President and CEO of CBI Health Group, noted: “CBI Health is not the same company it was six weeks ago, and we will not—and should not—go backwards.”

What changed? Like other organizations, Canada’s largest community health provider quickly learned the importance of supporting agility by seeing innovation as an essential component of any business. “We thought we were moving at an OK speed before the pandemic,” Hantho noted a month and a half into the crisis. “Now it feels glacial in comparison to the accelerated, and scaled, transformations we have had to blueprint and build in a matter of weeks.”

Simply put, with every disruptive twist and turn tossed at the marketplace and society in general by the pandemic, Hantho says leaders have to be ready to adjust or reinvent business models and practices, which “requires careful allocation of resources and an almost maniacal focus on the things that matter most.”

Other early lessons highlighted by Hantho included: the need to balance bold right-sizing measures with humanity; the need to support workplace changes with shared sacrifice; and the need to proactively garner stakeholder support for strategic decisions via clear and aggressive, but not self-serving, advocacy.

Sevaun Palvetzian, chief communications officer at Rogers, noted that the COVID-19 outbreak has served as an X-ray machine, exposing organizational strengths and weaknesses to stakeholders and the public. The lesson here is that you can’t overcommunicate during a crisis like a pandemic. And when the quality of leadership is illuminated in this way, Palvetzian says leaders need to ensure like never before that every decision made, big or small, authentically reflects the values posted on the corporate “front wall.”

Jeannine Pereira, director of talent development for EY Canada, highlighted how the pandemic has solidified the position of employee health and wellness as a widespread priority. At many companies before the outbreak, Pereira noted, “Wellbeing was considered a trend.” But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that the need to treat employee health and wellness as a top priority is “here to stay.”

Identifying a key lesson from the mass closure of workplaces, Pereira also noted that COVID-19 has clearly taught us that employees can be trusted far more than many in the management world previously imagined. “In the past,” she says, “companies were hesitant to allow people to work from home.” But the pandemic has demonstrated that out-of-sight employees can be trusted to put in their hours, and this lesson opens the door to rethinking office space requirements.

Pereira further notes that COVID-19 has called into question previously accepted business practices related to the need for travel and person-to-person meetings, but says that when considering policy changes managers need to be careful to “not go too far and eliminate the value of in-person interactions.”

Mona Malone, chief human resources officer and head of people & culture for BMO Financial Group, notes that the pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on financial-sector operations, forcing a complete rethink of continuity planning while fast-forwarding the industry’s digital adoption. But while disruption of this magnitude will create winners and losers, she notes that being on the winning side during a pandemic doesn’t just require identifying strategic opportunities in a dislocated market because Maslow’s hierarchy of needs prevails.

Pointing to a theory of human motivation proposed in 1943 by Abraham Maslow, Malone points out that the top concern of employees during a crisis of this nature is understandably the health and safety of loved ones. “If you can’t help with that,” she says, “you’re not going to get much further with anything else.”

In other words, while scenario planning to navigate today’s organizational challenges, you have to proactively help employees navigate their personal challenges as well. And when doing this, Malone says the big lessons generated by COVID-19 are clear. First, the value of human connection should not be underestimated. Second, mental health is a community-wide issue that business has a need and responsibility to help address. As Malone warns: “People might forget what you’ve done to help them navigate a crisis, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.”

With the uncertainty created by COVID-19 generating widespread job insecurity and general feelings of a “loss of control,” along with stresses related to isolation, dislocation, and threats to personal wellbeing (virus or otherwise), Rashid Wasti, EVP & chief talent officer at George Weston Limited, says the leadership imperative to invest in supporting workers—connecting with them, listening to them, empathizing with them—while empowering them to be productive increases tenfold. “The extended inability to know where all this is going, and how long it will take to get there, is proving the hardest to contend with for many,” he says. “It’s about mental health, physical health and the ability to be productive.”

In this environment, Wasti warns leaders not to fall into the trap of waiting for clarity before making big decisions. He notes that taking action when faced with unknowns involves risk, but so does not acting. Thanks to the pandemic, some market trends along with previous sources of competitive advantage have been disrupted, creating massive strategic opportunities for companies with the foresight, agility, and financial strength to capitalize on them. And that can make not acting a bigger risk.

That said, Wasti advises taking great care before acting on “the perceived proof” that we no longer need offices as we knew them prior to the pandemic. He notes that the productivity achieved during this unprecedented crisis has been largely supported by key foundations—culture, community, and connections—that can be lost over time “if we over-rotate to remote working in the medium term.”

“COVID-19 has not just served as a corporate X-ray machine. It has been a spotlight that has illuminated society’s various inequalities and disparate realities, especially in relation to racial and ethnic background, income, food and housing security, and mental health.”

Clearly, the early lessons of the pandemic called on business leaders to put people over profits, or, as Gordon Nixon, former President and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, recently noted in Director Journal, the flagship publication of the Institute of Corporate Directors: “Every company in this COVID-19 crisis has to put aside maximizing quarterly profits to do what’s in the best interests of all stakeholders, including society.”

As we move forward, and seize the opportunities created by the disruption, we also need to recognize the myriad ways that the pre-COVID period failed to do this. While there has been much talk about being “in this together,” many observers are highlighting the fact that all members of society are currently facing a common storm but not all feel like they’re in “the same boat.”

COVID-19 has not just served as a corporate X-ray machine. It has been a spotlight that has illuminated society’s various inequalities and disparate realities, especially in relation to racial and ethnic background, income, food and housing security, and mental health. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other black citizens, people young and old from across racial and gender spectrums filled the streets during a pandemic to protest persistent systemic injustices and demand change. Representing a new coalition of conscience, these protests have made it crystal clear that constitutional rights, codes of police conduct, and corporate value statements are not enough to ensure equality in safety, opportunity, and respect across society.

Indeed, when it comes to ensuring theses things—which matter most even in capitalist systems—what’s needed is better leadership in politics, business, and education.

As Michelle Obama noted in her Democratic National Convention speech south of the border, American children have watched the President of the United States, typically considered the leader of the free world, get away with labelling his critics enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. As a result, the kids that represent America’s future are questioning the nation’s professed ideals.

In Canada, the examples of poor leadership have been less extreme, but an obvious gap exists between what most of our leaders say we should care about as a nation and what our society is actually like, and that gap is disillusioning. Like the world’s largest economy, our nation—where polls reveal a majority of citizens believe systemic racism is a problem—has seen its streets fill with tens of thousands of people during a pandemic to demand change.

The lesson here for business leaders is that people make the place. As noted in “Building a Just and Equitable Future: A Character Perspective,” a blog by Kimberley Young Milani and Gerard Seijts: “People build systems and structures; and they craft the culture of an organization—for good or bad. Hence, if we really want to address systemic issues in organizations then we must first attend to the people.”

Mohamed Aly El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz SE, a large global financial services company based in Munich, Germany, said that the pandemic is a pivotal moment for companies and governments to think about doing things differently—to build better economies and societies. In his words: “We have a golden opportunity at the level of companies and governments to use… this awful tragedy to do things that are consistent with where we need to be over the longer term.”

Doing this requires proactively developing the character of leaders and followers alike so that all concerned not only care about making the world a better place but also are prepared to act.

Recently, more than 200 Canadian CEOs representing organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors signed up to support the BlackNorth Initiative against systemic racism. This is an important first step. But dismantling racism within their institutions, which will help build better organizations, economies, and societies, will take more than signing a pledge. In other words, what comes next will show where true leadership exists. And, yes, this shift will require a lot of resilience on the part of leaders—moving forward in small but deliberate steps, putting one foot in front of the other, maintaining hope, and striving for better days.

We can all benefit from the wisdom of Samwise Gamgee, a gardener who tended the property of Frodo Baggins’s wealthy family in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Despite different social standings, these two fictional hobbits of the Shire become fast friends as fate forces them to embark on a seemingly impossible quest to destroy the malevolent power of the One Ring and thwart Lord Sauron, a necromancer out to enslave all the races of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. And at one point in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of this epic tale of good versus evil, Samwise serves up words that seem relevant today.

As Frodo starts falling into despair over doubts that he can do what’s required, Samwise inspires him to fight the good fight: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The challenges our world faces rival anything Tolkien could imagine. It’s time for business leaders to show that great stories about what really matters can exist beyond fiction.


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