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Busy sidewalk in a bustling downtown city with people wearing masks.

Leadership During Covid

I ventured out this weekend to the store to grab a few necessities. I drove through now desolate roads, passed closed shops, and eerily empty sidewalks. I walked the store aisles and passed a random stranger with a mask over their face. We locked eyes for a moment and nodded quietly as if to equally acknowledge the bizarre situation we are living in. As if we could forget, the loudspeaker would remind us every 10 minutes, “Please remain at least 6 feet away from others at all times. Thank you for practicing safe social distancing as you shop.” It all felt apocalyptic.

As I walked aisle after aisle I surveyed the scarcity. I know logically that there is not a shortage of goods. But that hoarding behavior driven by panic has created the illusion of shortage. A reminder of yet another call this week. Another friend, laid off.

On a weekly check-in with business owners, the uncertainty of what comes next is palpable. Some have made abrupt changes, shutting down budgets until further notice. Others have waited it out, but are starting to think about the worst. For all, the goal is to maintain through this period, but the fear of the unknown is killing businesses.

Fear is healthy. In its most basic form, it makes you aware of the boundaries of the system you are dealing with. An evolutionary warning system is triggered when something is unknown, potentially dangerous, or life-threatening. In many cases, it keeps us alive and thriving. Acting as a range-finder of sorts to inform decision-making by forcing the individual to consider their relative position between safety and danger.

Panic is fear in the extreme. It is the point in time in which fear has grown exponentially disproportionate to logic, clarity, and reason. Research has found that while fear can over-engage the brain systems, panic disengages brain cells altogether. It escapes the bounds of reality and drives decision-making based on worst-case scenarios only. And, in the end, panic kills. 100% of the time.

Navigating COVID-19 as an American citizen has been an exercise in managing one’s emotions, vacillating between frustration and panic. Navigating COVID-19 as a business owner, small or large, is a maze of ambiguous assumptions, a game in which someone is constantly changing the rules.

Panic thrives in the absence of effective leadership. It drives poor decision-making because it’s only concerned with altering the current moment. And it makes it impossible to deliver sustainable results as a group because its only concern is mitigating the immediate danger to the individual.

From the start of the COVID crisis, America’s lack of leadership has become glaringly obvious. Beginning with the faulty tests from the CDC in the critical first weeks to the lack of valuable communication from the White House, the gaps in our current Administration have only been emphasized. The timeline of egregious mismanagement of COVID by the powers-that-be has resulted in a waterfall effect of outcomes that will be, no doubt, long-lasting.

Perhaps the most glaring error on the part of our leaders is that America has advanced in this battle without a single, united voice. There is no consistent narrative that provides context to the American people or our businesses. By the time Washington offered a weak vision for how to move forward, it was too late. The damage had been done. America currently has the worst outcomes of the global pandemic. And our leaders? Bi-partisan agendas battle it out at the level of law-making while national news channels peddle the latest opinion of who’s wrong and who’s right. Navarro and Fauci disagree on the use of Hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID. As hospitals hit critical mass and face shortages, Washington insists that everyone has access to what they need.

Without a narrative to rally around, we stand divided. Unable to navigate the terrain ahead with clear anticipation of what’s coming next, we are susceptible to worst-case scenarios and reactionary planning. To panic. We are all fighting our own battles, singularly, when we should be fighting this together, united by a singular mission.

Over the course of American history, we’re at our best, our most powerful, when we stand united.

Within this context, it makes sense that when chaos emerges the American people hoard toilet paper and make a run on guns. It makes sense that businesses everywhere, uncertain of the plan forward, respond by shutting down budgets. It makes sense that entire industries face becoming obsolete in the wake of the pandemic. It makes sense because, in the eyes of the American people, we don’t know what is coming next.

The idea that this saga will be over soon is wishful thinking, at best. The decision to reopen the country is plagued with the same ambiguous direction that we saw at the onset. Everyone agrees. These decisions are difficult, but it is impossible to move forward with the overwhelming lack of clarity on the plan or a timeline ahead. Nonetheless, move forward we must.

Business as usual isn’t an option. But we also need to accept that waiting for it to return to normal isn’t an option either. There is no “wait this out”—at the end of the day, the show must go on and the wheels of business must continue to move forward, regardless of whether or not Washington catches up. The CDC has defined what we can and must do to stay healthy and safe. Now it’s our turn to redefine, reimagine, and rewrite how we operate within the constraints we’ve been given. And how we get back to work.

In this vacuum of leadership from our government, we need our business and community leaders to step in, fill the void, and rally their people around a clear course of action with a leadership style informed by the challenges of Covid-19. To abandon a “wait and see” mentality that cedes all control over outcomes to a dangerous and unpredictable external force, and begin implementing proactive strategies and approaches for how they can provide value in this extreme moment of need.

When has America ever waited to be told what to do?

As business leaders, we know the value of a clear narrative. And we know that the most critical part of our role as a leader is to diligently define the “what” and “why”, so our intelligent teams can define the “how” with confidence. And when the needle moves, we must redefine the narrative.

Leadership styles must evolve to be informed by the challenges faced during Covid-19. Sustainable success relies on a consistent “why” and “what” driving the execution of the “how”. The presence of conflicting narratives results in each team operating with their own set of assumptions, based on the partial information at any given moment. The result is a cacophony of outcomes, rarely serving the overarching goal. If we aren’t careful, over time this cacophony turns to discord, as a lack of trust in our leadership and colleagues sets in, moving through our operations, driving decisions rooted in self-interest, and fed by panic.

It’s time for a new narrative. One of American resilience, wisdom, and the ability to do hard things. Now is the time for us to leverage ingenuity and independence. Leaders, it’s on you.

Leadership isn’t defined in chaos. Only proven.

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