I was interviewed on a podcast recently and our current challenge, the coronavirus, came up as a topic. The podcast host asked me what leaders and entrepreneurs must be focused on as we think about opening the American economy again when the crisis abates.
I answered, “Leaders need to be thinking creatively and with as much imagination as they can about the post-COVID 19 world. The world will not return to how things were in 2019.
Leaders must be able to look beyond the light their headlights cast on the road in front of them. They must be able to look beyond the light into the darkness.”
One of the key roles of any leader, whether they lead a Fortune 100 company, a family of four, or anything in between, is providing a vision of the future for those they lead.
The COVID 19 period is a time of uncertainty for many and the post-COVID 19 period will be just as uncertain. About the only certainty is that life will be different.
A way to do this is for leaders to step away from the tactics of making day to day decisions and focus on the long game. The way to do this is by delegating to someone else in the organization the role of making those short-term decisions.
In a company, it might mean the CEO delegates those short terms decisions to the Chief Operating Officer. In a family unit, it might mean one spouse looks at the short-term situation while the other looks beyond.
This is a divide and conquer mentality. One thing is certain; if the leader cannot provide a long-term vision, at some point the organization is going to run out of runway space and will never be able to take off.
A World of Opportunity
However, with challenges come opportunities. Good leaders find opportunities within the fog of difficulty. One of the differences between managers and leaders is that managers promote stability while leaders drive change. The post-COVID 19 period will not be stable. It will be teeming with change.
The post-COVID 19 period will spotlight leaders who are out front, creative, and innovative. It was in the 2008 to 2010 recession period that Airbnb, Uber, and WhatsApp all were born and went on to disrupt their respective industries. Disruption will occur again within the wake of COVID 19. It is always better to be the disrupter rather than the disrupted.
Competent and Confident Leadership
Leaders must also inspire confidence during tough times. A way to do this is by being pragmatic and acknowledging the difficulties, while at the same time shining a light in the darkness on the path ahead.
This means communicating a plan, explaining the purpose, and then moving ahead with optimism. The future belongs to the bold. As we move into the next phase of the COVID 19 world boldness will be a valuable trait.
A Time for Courage
Leaders must look into the darkness beyond the beam of light cast by the headlights. Leaders must have the courage to make decisions with imperfect information, just as courageous leaders have always done.
Successful leaders must be comfortable with taking risks, understanding they must also do their best to mitigate the risks they choose to take.
Standing still or freezing up will not be an option. Leaders dispel uncertainty though action. The best way to allay the fear of followers is to accept prudent risk, make a decision, be attentive to the developing situation, and be prepared to pivot or call an audible if necessary, and move forward.
How to Predict the Future
So how do leaders look into the future and see beyond the headlights? Well, it is not easy, and I am not trying to say it is. However, leaders can set conditions. Here are a few suggestions.
Leaders should study history and review the past. There have been other crises that we could learn from to include the great influenza of 1918, world wars, revolutions, depressions, and recessions. Each of those crises has forced disruption and change.
One should also listen to and read about what renowned thought leaders are saying. People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and others who have been through turbulent times and arrived on the other side of the storm thriving rather than surviving.
During times like the COVID 19 crisis leaders must be extremely observant of the world around them. They must take notice of how other people, organizations, and countries are responding, determining what is working and what is not working.
In the military, we say intelligence drives operations. This means we must gather information and make decisions based on the facts on the ground, rather than what we may want to believe.
Leaders should also hold lessons learned sessions and determine, as an organization, what their group has done well, and what the team can improve.
The lessons learned captured should then become lessons applied. By assessing what lessons should be applied, one could then think about what new processes, tools, or resources will be required as we move into the new normal.
When beginning a new initiative break out the lessons learned file and review it.
Leaders must flick on those high beams whenever possible. Even with the bright lights on, there are unknowns lurking in the darkness.
Businesses and organizations that will thrive during times of uncertainty will be the ones with leaders who can look beyond the headlights.