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Signals, Extreme Events, & Some Leadership Lessons

by Bruce J. Avolio
Co-author of the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire 
Professor of Management, Univ. of Washington
April 23, 2020

In this posting, I would like to focus on just one word—signals.

Early in this emerging pandemic, some leaders, experts, and other interested stakeholders saw a signal that ‘suggested’ the COVID-19 virus might not be a typical flu bug. In fairness to the people who missed that, it can be a challenge to determine which signals are important: we filter what is relevant and we rely on others to help identify signals we may have missed.

In psychology, we talk about the signal-to-noise ratio. Even a strong signal can get lost in the noise of a loud background. This is why sirens are designed to be uncomfortably heard! We pay attention to signals that we think mean something to us, and our biases may have an influence. How? If we think a signal is not meaningful, e.g., it is January 2020, the virus in China has nothing to do with us in other countries, then we might ignore its relevance.

Leaders can also create their own noise, which drowns out important signals. When leaders build an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, their followers will not freely share what they see and think. I believe that if you need a whistleblower program to alert you to a signal, you probably have created too much noise in your organization.

One good lesson to learn from this pandemic is to try to lower your threshold and to register as many signals you feel are relevant, then suspend judgment on each until you have enough data to judge whether ‘this signal really does matter’.

Throughout the unfolding pandemic, we see at different points in time, signals more (or less) relevant:
  • Early on, one might have asked: Is this really a pandemic, or can we address it with the regular tools in our healthcare arsenal?
  • Next, if this virus is special, what does that mean for diagnosing, treating, and eliminating it?
  • Once the virus spread, many asked, what current resources do we have? What will we need to deal with this emerging crisis, e.g., masks, ventilators, qualified personnel, space, tests, labs, collaboration, time, leaders, and organizations who have plans to deal with it, etc.?
  • Next, what resources are needed to sustain our mitigation efforts against this existential threat?
  • Finally, a signal begins to emerge, that we might get through this, suggesting a need to re-normalize and open our communities.
  • We know there are more signals to come, some still muffled by the noisy background that remains, while the reverberations from this pandemic will continue for many months...and years. For example, how many people will suffer from post-traumatic pandemic stress? How will markets and consumers shift to online exchanges? Which investments should we make to mitigate these pandemic events in the future?

Why Signals Matter to Consequential Leadership

We must continually look for signals and encourage others to share with us what they see amidst the noise in their domains of responsibility. No one can ever discern all relevant signals. Yet, leaders can certainly create a safe place for people to tell them and others about potential signals that are emerging. As we have become accustomed to doing since 9/11/2001 in this country, if you see something, say something, and please make sure your leaders hear it!