Leadership in a Pandemic Reality


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling in the midst of this pandemic. As an organizational change management (OCM) expert, I make a living by helping people and companies adapt when they’re going through significant change. With our “shelter in place” state of affairs and the entire human race facing major disruption to their daily lives, I feel helpless, unable to be there for people when they need me most. With this state of disruption, people are looking to their leaders to be strong, to rethink how they approach their management roles, and to perhaps even make adjustments to their leadership styles. It’s times like these that leaders must pause and self-evaluate to become more compassionate and tailor their direction to the new reality.

When I work with leaders on navigating and helping others through change, I use a leadership framework that’s straightforward, simple and easy to apply. It defines leadership as a combination of four components: self, vision, action and relationships. In a series of blog pieces, we can explore how to adapt each of these components to offer strong leadership in the new reality, starting with this one on “self.”

Part One – Leading with Self

Leadership begins at “leading with self.” Father Joseph McShane, the president of Fordham University, says leadership begins with self-knowledge. Self-awareness helps us understand how and why we’ve arrived where we are. What are the beliefs and experiences that make us the people we are today? And how does that combination influence how we see the current state of affairs?

In their book Developing Management Skills, David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron propose that self-awareness includes five core dimensions:

1. Personal values are the core beliefs, norms and code of behavior that you find acceptable. Although personal values are relatively stable over time, situations like a global pandemic may alter or bring into focus what is important to each of us. When teaching leadership skills, I ask individuals to identify values that are important to them. We continue to narrow the list until we get to one. When I did the exercise, I found my nonnegotiable value is freedom. Understanding this goes a long way toward helping me understand why I am struggling. Think about your values. Are they being challenged? How do we adjust or realign what is most critical in our lives?

Organizational values also impact our self-identity. These values represent the core beliefs upon which an organization is built. Think about the organizations with which you are affiliated. Are they responding to this pandemic in a way that you expect? What steps can you take to align your personal values with your organizational values?

2. Learning styles are the particular ways we learn and process information. As a result of the pandemic, we have all been forced online. During these times, we may have limited opportunities to learn through experience or active experimentation and more reliance on reflective observation and abstract conceptualization. Many of us may feel we are getting “lectured to” a lot on webinars. Being a passive observer has never worked well for me in any capacity, let alone when trying to learn. Being familiar with our learning styles can help us be more engaged, productive and fulfilled. Are you getting more information through reading, watching or listening? Be patient and use this learning environment as a way to challenge your norms. Stretch yourself. Stay focused. (Trust me, I am telling myself these same things.)

3. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the combination of self-awareness, social awareness and relationship management. In short, EQ is your ability to read the room and make adjustments so you can optimize interaction. Since stay-at-home orders went into effect, there is no longer a “room” to read, so many of us are at a loss to flex in this area. Video capabilities can give you a better sense than voice-only capabilities about how you are coming across and how you are being received, but it can be difficult to conduct business with large groups in this way. Identify roles for others to play, so you aren’t managing the interaction alone or having to pay attention to the technology. Ask for others to contribute or chime in and ensure you are being effective.

4. Orientation to change is the combination of “tolerance for ambiguity” and “locus of control.” Tolerance for ambiguity is the degree to which someone feels comfortable dealing with uncertainty or incomplete instructions. Locus of control is your perspective regarding the extent to which you are in control of your own destiny.

Orientation to change is where this pandemic is hitting the hardest with respect to leading with self. Even individuals who are resilient in ambiguous situations may be having a hard time coping with all of the unknowns. Not only do we not know if we will get sick (or have other impacts from this pandemic), we also don’t know when we can get back to “normal” and what normal will look like. It can get even more complicated for those with low tolerance for ambiguity and an external locus of control. You may feel totally helpless in the current situation. Get clear on your own threshold for ambiguity and define the things about which you can be more certain. Strong leaders know how to focus on the things they can control and try not to worry about those they cannot. 

5. Core self-evaluation is the basic, subconscious beliefs you hold about yourself and your ability to contribute to society. Subcomponents can include locus of control, neuroticism, generalized self-efficacy and self-esteem. This is broad topic worth exploring and contributes in a profound way to self-awareness. In general, during the pandemic, I would suggest we all give ourselves a break by understanding that no one, not even experts, have all the answers. Do the best you can every day and don’t be too hard on yourself. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us. 

There is no question we are experiencing challenging times. Strong leaders understand the need to take time to reflect and analyze their feelings. It’s about being aware and coming to terms with your feelings – not about evaluating or judging them. Of course, each of us has a different profile around these dimensions, and they “show up” in varying degrees. It is important for us to take things one day at a time and find small wins. We may need to scale back, rightsize and achieve tangible accomplishments.

Read Part Two in the series Leading with Vision and Part Three in the series Leading with Action.