On good days, a leader’s job is simple: Keep the company running, employees productive, and customers happy.
What distinguishes a great leader is how she responds in times of crisis. Does she panic, seeing uncertainty ahead? Or does she see the bigger picture — the fact that more than money is at stake; that people must put themselves and their loved ones ahead of business needs?
Lives are on the line, and business leaders have a responsibility to be there for their communities, whether they can be there in person or not.
Your employees and customers know that. What they are looking for is whether you’re up to snuff as a leader. Here’s how they decide:
- Concern for employees
Great leaders care about their employees as people first and workers second. That distinction may not be noticed during a typical workday, but it becomes critical during a crisis.
During the outbreak, leaders can show they care for employees by sharing the “why” behind business decisions. Consulting firm Credera’s CEO Justin Bell and Managing Partner Andrew Warden make it a point to overcommunicate and be transparent when sharing information with employees about their thought processes.
Bell and Warden’s advice? Take a page from Ben Horowitz’s book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”: “Take care of the people, the products, and the profits — in that order.”
- Community engagement
Every company is part of a larger community. Employees use roads to get to work. Their children go to public schools. If they get sick, they go to a hospital for care.
Companies in discretionary industries are an important part of their communities. They have the most to lose during a pandemic, but they also have the most to prove.
Curtis Christopherson, president of Innovative Fitness, knows people don’t have money to spend on high-end health services. Because he also knows people will struggle to stay fit at home, he’s unveiled a “Beat the Bug” fitness challenge. “We knew we had to do our part to flatten the curve,” Christopherson says. “The more seriously we take social distancing, the sooner we’ll all be back to normal.”
Look for ways to give back from afar. Can you create an educational video on the dangers of hoarding food? What about a guide to proper hand-washing?
- A focus on the greater goal
Nobody starts — or works for — a company because they like to watch sales tick up. People are attracted to business because they want to build a better life for themselves and their families.
Someone who recently reminded me of that is Yan Pritzker, co-founder and CTO of Swan Bitcoin. “As we transition to remote work, we’ll learn to be more productive in less time, get sick less often, travel more, and spend more time with our families,” Pritzker points out. “It’s important not to lose sight of why we work.”
I admit, I’ve struggled with this. I’m in the midst of building Calendar, a productivity platform I co-founded. My goal is to help people spend more time with the people they care about — but I have to remind myself, it’s not signups or upsells that matter. What’s important is the opportunities I can create for personal connection.
In a crisis, bad things happen to good people. Some people who do everything medical experts recommend to fight the virus — wash their hands, keep their hands away from their face, avoid unnecessary contact with others — will still get sick.
Great leaders have empathy. They realize that going through hard times makes people stronger, and they encourage those people to push on.
“What’s happening to these people during these moments?” asks Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn. “They are investing in themselves. They’re learning a great deal about their thinking and possible contribution to the great events of the day.”
Investing in employees during tough times is the right thing to do. And once things return to normal, those workers’ experiences will only make them more valuable to the team.
- A sense of opportunity
The Chinese symbol for “crisis” has two parts: one means “danger,” but the other means “opportunity.” The lesson is this: Leaders should respect the risk of the virus to their business (and health), but they shouldn’t forget that also it’s a chance to grow.
Someone who reminded me of the good that can come from crises is professional dancer Ashleigh Dilello. At 13, Dillello was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease that caused her chronic pain and rapid weight gain.
Although Dilello could have let it get her down, she used her diagnosis to step up. “Our brain’s primary purpose is to keep us safe, and one way it does so is by feeding our fear of failure,” she told me. “If I hadn’t repeatedly challenged my own brain’s limiting beliefs, I never would have survived my health crisis.”
Just as Dilello’s illness helped her see her own strength, the virus will shake things up in ways we can’t yet see. Everyday people will do extraordinary things. Small businesses will make big impacts in their communities. It’s all about seeing those silver linings.