by Atholl Duncan, Chair of Black Isle Group and author of “Leaders in Lockdown: Inside Stories of Covid-19 and the New World of Business“
In my work as a leadership performance advisor and executive coach, I have devoted the last few months helping leaders come to terms with what they’ve been through.
The sessions have been cathartic. An outpouring of emotions from normally unemotional people. Advisory has turned to therapy. Like witnesses to a terrible accident, senior leaders have needed time to vent their feelings, share their agonies and try to come to terms with their shellshock. Many display classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The whole experience has underlined how resilience matters like it has never mattered before.
David Behan is Chair of the HC-One care home company. “We are judged as leaders not on what we are like when the going is good,” he tells me. “We are judged as leaders on what we are like when the going is tough.”
In the first 100 days of lockdown more than 1,000 residents died in his homes. Several co-workers also lost their lives to COVID. His business has had to cope with 60 major changes to regulations since the crisis began.
General Stan McChrystal ran the joint operations for the allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s the four-star general who commanded the mission to capture Saddam Hussein.
“We need a different culture in organizations for how we are prepared for uncertainty,” McChrystal believes. “Organizations need to adopt a boxer’s stance. Right now, there’s so little spare capacity. So little cash on the balance sheet. The pressure is all about maximizing profit in the short term. You need to trade short-term efficiency, so you have agility.”
It all points to a focus on resilience in corporate strategy and leadership behavior — a new resilient mindset. Resilience comes in many guises. There’s the personal fortitude and mindset to survive the COVID-19 crisis, which is now entering its second year and will continue for some time to come. There’s the financial resilience to see it through without going bust. There’s the operational resilience to ensure that the systems and processes of complex corporations don’t keel over and fail when the game changes.
“It is going to be a period of uncertainty for a long time,” McChrystal notes. “The new normal will not be the old normal. There will be a different set of operating rhythms. But we have to get better suited to responding to a crisis.”
What can business leaders do to build resilience? Centered on five vital areas, these simple practices are a great place to start:
1. Take a pause.
Give yourself breathing space to reflect and step away from the madding crowd. Ask yourself: am I focusing on the matters that will really make a difference? Don’t be a busy fool. Being busy is just a way to deflect confronting your anxiety. Delegate, delegate, delegate the stuff that you don’t have to do. Get an executive coach or mentor who can hold up a mirror to you and ask you the really awkward questions. It is the inner game that determines success and breeds resilience.
2. Be healthy.
There has been an explosion in executives turning to meditation to unclutter their minds and de-stress. There is also a far greater realization that your physical health massively impacts your corporate effectiveness and decision making. Will Ahmed is the Boston based CEO of the health tech company WHOOP. He’s at the forefront of innovating around executive health. “We have super-high-performing individuals who are making incredibly important decisions every day and they recognize, ‘If I have an earnings call tomorrow or in two days, how am I going to peak for that?’
It is the same mindset that an Olympian has to how they are going to peak for a competition. There is a lot about measuring your body, measuring behaviors and measuring lifestyle decisions that can either position you to succeed and be the best version of yourself on that day or position you to be run down.”
3. Be smart.
Change the way you work. Burnout is inevitable for teams and individuals dealing with such an elevated set of new business challenges over such a long period of time. Companies that have done well have reorganized into A Teams, B Teams and C Teams. This means you are not always on. It also allows you to develop new talent and to give responsibility to great young people who have not previously had the chance to shine.
Watch and sort those who won’t give up control. Make sure that you and your colleagues get proper breaks. There are horror stories of people who have not taken a single vacation day in more than a year.
4. Be kind.
Kindness encourages kindness. Pinky Liliani describes herself as a kindness campaigner. She works with many of the world’s top business leaders. “Everyone I have spoken to has been pushed to the limit. The strain on their mental health and the worries about the physical safety of their teams and families has been immense,” she confides. It is only through kindness, Liliani believes, that people move from a successful leader to a significant one.
“I hope we will be a more caring and kinder society,” she says. “We have experienced it during the crisis. In the past a lot of leaders were quite brutal — they needed to be feared rather than loved. In the future we want to show that to be a really successful leader, you have to be a kind leader.” She intends to showcase 50 kind leaders in the next 12 months.
5. Be hopeful.
In the year of the pandemic, individuals, companies, countries and cities have shown remarkable resilience. New York is one. Broadway is the beating heart of that resilient spirit. The theatre district employs 97,000 people with an economic impact of more than $15 billion. But the stages are silent, the stalls empty and the tourists are at home. Charlotte St. Martin is the president of the Broadway League. “It has been devastating but the sense of community has been incredible,” she says. “I didn’t know how strong it was until this happened. Broadway is resilient.”
St. Martin has spent most of the last year between her apartment on the Upper East and her office in Times Square, planning and dreaming of the day the curtain rises again. “I think there will be a sense of joy, excitement and exuberance,” she says. “There may be masks but there will be a lot of hugging. It will be pretty wonderful to be here when we’re back up.” Charlotte St. Martin and Broadway define the resilience that will eventually see us through the pain of the pandemic.
Atholl Duncan is Chair of Black Isle Group, leadership performance development specialists, and an international executive coach. Certified by INSEAD, he also studied leadership at Harvard and Cranfield. His new book is “Leaders in Lockdown: Inside Stories of Covid-19 and the New World of Business“.