The Road Ahead: What will be your Leadership Legacy?

Warren Postlewaite, 360 Workplace Solutions Ltd. Previously published on Lexology.

A Fork in Road is a metaphor for a deciding moment in history when a major choice of options is required.

There’s an allegory from the Middle Ages where a Knight comes to a fork in the road and sees an inscription that reads “if you ride to the left, you will lose your horse, if you ride to the right, you will lose your head.” 

You may roll your eyes at such hyperbole, but take note, this allegory reveals the nature of the leadership challenges ahead. 

The coronavirus is becoming an accelerator for one of the greatest workplace transformations of our lifetime. Despite plans for a gradual reopening, the IMF is contrasting this event to the Great Depression. How we work, communicate and spend our money will be changed forever. People are pained about job futures and providing for their families. Also, let’s not forget the fatigue associated with avoiding contracting COVID-19.

And the kids – their generation will be shaped by this event. They are being robbed of memories with peers. For the teens, their inherent heightened reactivity to stress weighs on parents’ minds. 

Whether we choose to see it or not, a collective trauma may be setting in. The Canadian Mental Health Association is warning of an echo pandemic. Look closely and you’ll see people becoming increasingly reticent. It’s not a flashpoint, but a slow drip. Subtle personality changes undergirded by sadness, anger and worry. The word “echo” infers that many people will still be living in this crisis, even when the virus no longer poses a real threat. 

If you’re still unconvinced of the gravity, a recent Ekos poll found that 73% of Canadians believe COVID-19 is the most serious challenge Canada has faced in the last 50 years. As a comparative, this eclipses how Canada felt about the September 11, 2001 attacks and financial crisis in 2008.

The endgame appears to be a big bang event – a vaccine. The road will be long.

The good news is most leadership teams are settling into routines – they’re learning how to lead from a distance. They’re huddling with current-state dashboards and future-state forecasts. The bad news is that this is the easy time for leaders. 

At this juncture, employees and boards of directors have been fairly generous in interpreting leaderships’ actions; rallying around the brand during an externally-caused crisis is the norm. For example, all G7 leaders’ opinion polls rose when they initially responded to the pandemic, regardless of their merit – a sugar pill of sorts. 

As I indicated in a previous article, leaders are currently in a fish bowl. As the Netflix placebos wear off and the stockpile of anxieties grow, followers will not be as forgiving as they’ve been – they will soon be captivated by and deconstruct everything their leaders do. 

As a person who deals with extraordinary events for a living, I know that the effects of leadership during a crisis are magnified. If you’re a leader, this pandemic will be your legacy, for good or ill. 

With legacies in mind and a great crossroads in sight, leaders will certainly need to use ‘all of the buffalo.’ However, before you start to use the entire animal, you will do well to create a culture of reassurance

To cultivate a culture of reassurance you must first understand who you’re leading – ask yourself what are your followers’ current needs? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a reliable model to define needs in our current COVID-19 reality. Maslow’s Hierarchy is a motivational theory comprising a five-tier pyramid of needs depicted in hierarchical levels.

Needs in the bottom must be satisfied before individuals can attend to the top. COVID-19 has caused a collective backslide into the lower levels of the pyramid. What is motivating people now is not the high pursuit of love and esteem, rather, the needs are physiological (disinfectant, food, etc) along with security and safety (financial/job security, protection against serious illness and death, a safe dwelling to social distance, coping, etc). 

Maslow’s Hierarchy is instructive for how leaders should be functioning in the COVID-19 environment. With organizations awash in uncertainty, it requires leaders to reassureand acknowledge that the needs in the bottom of the pyramid are the current priority.

Cultivating a culture of reassuranceis deceptively simple. There’s no need to overthink it. All leaders need to do is have a charismatic presence

Leaders during times of crisis understand that followers are “charisma hungry.” This is because charismatic leaders are outward facing symbols of safety and comfort. Being present is critical during a pandemic because followers can’t see the coronavirus and this can create a collective feeling of distrust. Followers only trust what they can see. 

An actionable example of charismatic presence is seen in a Canadian CEO’s current practice of having i) daily virtual coffees with teams; ii) fitness challenges; iii) daily email briefings, and iv) a bi-weekly video address. These virtual coffees are akin to FDR’s fireside radio chats held during the 1930’s Depression Era. FDR’s chats demonstrated a personal responsiveness to peoples’ needs as individuals. The chats gave people a purpose, bound them together toward a common cause. 

According to transformational leadership expert, Dr. Julian Barling, “it’s not the big things during a crisis that matter, it’s the smallest things that you can do make a meaningful difference in the worst of times.” Barling’s research tells us that “followers will reward a leader during crisis for what they did not have to do but chose to do anyway.”             

The road ahead will be long and full of allegories. Arrange a virtual coffee and give your followers a cup of leadership action. It will be your legacy. 

Confidential consultations are available.Contact 360 Workplace Solutions Ltd.