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An icebreaker at a recent meeting I took part in asked a group of leaders from many sectors to name the pandemic phrase they have grown most tired of seeing and hearing. “New normal” topped the list, with “we’re all in this together” not far behind. The word “pivot” was not a choice offered in the quickie poll, but some indicated they desperately want to pivot away from that phrase. I chose PPE, because the acronym makes something vitally personal and protective seem almost abstract or inanimate.

I was reminded that to be a good leader you apparently had to say “new paradigm” once every half hour. Ugh.

Lesson One: Be careful of these words. As a leader, you may feel you are displaying wisdom in these tumultuous times, but you may be turning off others or sounding vacuous. Acronyms often strip the humanity from what they are supposedly describing.

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At the same time, I have been pondering the ability to pirouette after encountering something stunningly obvious but profound in a recent report by McKinsey & Co. The consultants who make big bucks clarifying uncertainty for companies suggested that “the unknown portion of the crisis may be beyond anything we’ve seen in our professional lives,” with boards and managers feeling like they might be grappling with only five per cent of the issues. Talking with some Ontario restaurateurs and retailers recently, I suspect they might figure five per cent is on the high side.

We all crave stability, a hint of certainty – and that’s what McKinsey tries to provide, writing in crisply authoritative tones. But here they are telling us uncertainty is common or, essentially, normal.

Lesson Two: Former U.S. secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld once told us there were “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” He emphasized the unknown unknowns, but these days it may be wise to put a list of all three on your whiteboard and review them regularly as they change or firm up.

While McKinsey’s lesson was to be flexible, it also said the ability to examine challenges and respond quickly is essential. “The point isn’t to have a better answer. The point is to build the organizational capability to learn quickly why your answer is wrong and pivot faster than your peers do,” the consultants say.

The McKinsey report says resilience comes through speed. "This may be a new capability that very few organizations have now, and they will likely need to spend real time building it.” Quy Huy, a professor of strategic management at Insead, advises us to build a strong organizational immune system rather than maximize short-term profits. We don’t usually think of organizations having immune systems, but he says it involves spotting problems when they look small, learning from them and developing preventive measures rapidly. He also suggests aiming for survivability and resilience before economic efficiency. “It would seem meaningless to talk about an efficient dead organization,” he notes, urging you to build contingency into all aspects of your operation to ensure survival.

Lesson Three: An effective strategy today makes tactics – and a tactical mindset – critical. And that strategy must be implemented with a willingness to reverse course at any moment.

It’s hard to be a leader with so much uncertainty, including for many people you work with who wonder whether they will have a job with your organization in the future. We want certainty when we’re in a quagmire of unknowns. Trust comes from being truthful, not telling people things that will soon be proved wrong. For example, Edelman, the public relations firm that, ironically, publishes an eponymous trust barometer, told staff in March there would be no layoffs, and then recently announced 400 jobs would be cut. You can’t look evasive when asked questions, but you also can’t go beyond the known knowns with your answers.

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Lesson Four: It’s important to be calm and calming. You must be seen to be on your team’s side, helping them through challenges such as this pandemic, rather than appearing to be on some cost-cutter’s side, even though cash flow is particularly vital these days and it may well be that not everyone on the team in February can remain on it.

Mark Kotchapaw, senior pastor at Bethel Church in Kingston, asked my own leadership discussion group to ponder how we want our leadership to be thought of when this pandemic subsides. You may want to ask yourself these questions he supplied: What three to four words or phrases would I want people to associate with my leadership? What do I want people to say about my character? What do I want people to say about how I treated people?

Cannonballs

  • Virtual communications lessen the emotions being conveyed, so public-speaking expert Nick Morgan recommends making an effort to connect on the sort of level that you would face-to-face at the office. You may be proud of your poker game and your ability to hide emotions. Not now with employees, however.
  • Chinese companies are ahead of us in reopening, but even when everybody is physically present in the same office, virtual meetings have become the norm. They are viewed as more efficient, direct and goal-oriented.
  • Research shows people consistently underestimate their own originality and, thus their creativity. The researchers say that means as a manager you should invite your team members to share their ideas that might not see the light of day because the employee figures they aren’t special.

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