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Leadership in a Pandemic and Things that Matter


By Bruce J. Avolio
March 31, 2020

It has been estimated that nearly a third of the world’s population is now sheltering in place, avoiding any close social contact, in an effort for us all to remain safe and healthy. This level of alignment among millions of people, though created by this existential threat, is truly extraordinary to witness. One could almost be inspired by what is transpiring in terms of the sheer magnitude and pace of change…if only it was a positive challenge to our world.

Nevertheless, some important lessons can be learned and applied now and to those times in the future, where any individual, team, organization, community or nation chooses to change versus being forced to do so.

Let me share 5 points that should matter in good times and bad: points which have stood out since we began to take on the COVID-19 challenge.

1. Data Matters: Leaders frequently say that they have made decisions based on their ‘instincts’ or ‘gut’. Yet we have seen over the last several weeks how important data is in determining what actions should or should not be taken to address this pandemic. We know that the more data points we have on those afflicted, the better able we are to make more effective decisions. Ask yourself, how many people realized a month ago the importance of data, like flattening the curve? Data does matter.

2. Clarity Matters: Most people are typically frustrated with their leader’s lack of clarity associated with their roles, responsibilities, goals, mission and direction. We have seen over the last several weeks the importance of leaders being clear when explaining their intentions, expectations, goals and rules, with respect to our response to the pandemic. Clarity does matter.

3. Goodwill Matters: In extreme situations, we depend on the goodwill of others in order to survive and sustain. Goodwill is something a leader should build every day with their team or organization, for that time they need to call on it. I suspect that those employers who are taking care of their workers now, by keeping them safe and supported, will likely see a much more committed workforce when this crisis subsides. This is where doing the right thing can be instrumental to building future goodwill among your key stakeholders. Goodwill does matter.

4. Justice Matters: We know that people are much more likely to accept a difficult decision as being fair, if they feel they have been listened to, respected, that the decision was made transparently and was well-explained. Where hospitals have followed these guidelines in dealing with healthcare mistakes, they have seen a much lower likelihood of being sued by patients. Where organizations have followed these same guidelines, they have seen lower levels of theft by their employees. Justice does matter.

5. Hope Matters: Hope is both will and way. For example, do we have the will to stick with social distancing, and are there ways we can do so, but still stay connected? COVID-19 diminishes our will by knowing there is no vaccine for it yet. However, if we have strategies and plans to address this virus, e.g., working from home, using social media, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, chatting, sending each other humorous videos, and taking our dogs for yet another long walk, then we build hope. Each day we see new ways emerging to deal with the influx of patients in our healthcare facilities, and that offers hope. Hope does matter.

All that I have commented on above matters whether there is or is not a pandemic.

Bruce Avolio's page at the University of Washington