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Leading in an ALL CORONAVIRUS Environment

| March 17, 2020

by Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

During this current health crisis it may be helpful to take a few minutes to step back and think about the leadership challenges and responsibilities that are inherent in this increasing critical threat. Before you begin this, it is of first importance for you to take the necessary steps to care for yourself and for your family. If you don’t, you may not be able to do the necessary work for your organization effectively.

As you begin to think about your leadership responsibilities, it is useful to reflect on the need to get on the balcony to think strategically and play out the different scenarios.  It is important to remember communicating is a key responsibility in the midst of uncertainty yet challenging when there is more unknown at times than known.  Another aspect is to be self observing about how you lead or don’t from where you are during a time when leaders are tested.


Getting on the Balcony

Getting up on the balcony to see the big picture helps provide perspective. It is far too easy to get caught in the immediate, reactive, crisis-driven frenzy that is playing out in too many places. We suggest it is a leader’s responsibility to focus on the forces and trends impacting the current context, and to play out the implications of these.

Starting to sketch out different scenarios is exactly what the leaders of your universities and health systems have been doing, considering best case-worst case. Leaders at different universities have anticipated that if students go on spring break and return having been exposed to the virus, then the entire community could be in jeopardy. Having thousands of students potentially contracting the virus could lead to a major health crisis on a campus and a disaster for an institution unprepared for such an event.

This leads to the next level scenario exercises, playing out different ways to continue the learning process without the residential experience. Leveraging online platforms is now the preferred strategy for many schools accelerating the adoption of a medium that will require many people to transition.

For a health system, once you select a strategy it is still prudent to have a Plan B if needed to scale up to meet the challenge you didn’t project would materialize.

What are the scenarios you need to play out as your university goes online, or as your employees all work remotely, or as the health experts predict more people including some of your staff contract the Coronavirus?


Communicating Is a Core Leadership Competency

During a major incident or on-going crisis a leader has the responsibility to communicate to share information as well as to reassure people to the extent we can. We look to leaders to keep us informed the best they can. What is happening? What direction are we going in? What decisions have been made? What are we to do given the current situation? People look to leaders to provide information, guidance, and a sense of confidence that people in charge know what they are doing and will get us through this.

Some principles we can use to guide us during these times are:

  • Communicate frequently, sharing as much information as you can.
  • Ensure the communications are accurate, consistent, clear and considerate.
  • Communication is two-way.  Take time to truly understand constituent needs and concerns.  Listen to their ideas.

During these last few weeks, everyone wanted to know what was going on, what had been decided, and what the implications are for them individually, whether a student, faculty, or staff. Taking into consideration these different constituencies is important.

What do you need to communicate and to whom, and how might you do this in the most effective way?


Leaders Are on Stage All the Times

As John Freshwaters from Stanford recently shared in his reflection to his MOR cohort, “As I consider and reflect on this current situation one initial thought that comes to mind for me stems from the session where Brian shared ‘the stage’ metaphor, and the various roles we take as ‘actors’ in the production.  Given current circumstances, each of us can expect to participate in multiple roles including: a need to take center stage at times as the Director or Lead actor, a need to actively serve as a Supporting Actor to other leaders, and even opportunities to roll up our sleeves and lead as part of the set crew.  In each of these roles, we may need to quickly go off-script and improvise, recognizing that decisions may need to be made quickly.”

You and others are observing leaders on your campus. Do you know what your leaders need from you and your team? This is a time to be aligned and all pulling together to deliver the support or services needed. The folks who work with you are aware of how you are leading or managing or communicating throughout this stretch as you are aware of the individuals you look toward.

Are you being mindful in how you show up and how you play your part? Are you using your emotional intelligence to empathize with the people who are anxious? Are you being intentional in what you say and do, given people are looking to you for guidance and reassurance?

Leading from where you are may involve playing out different scenarios within your scope or portfolio. Leading from where you are may involve ensuring you and your staff are navigating this as well as you can. Leading from where you are may mean ensuring your services are sufficiently robust to provide alternative ways to deliver if needed. Leading from where you are may involve helping maintain a sense of calm when some people are close to panic.  Leading from where you are also means being self aware and self managing as you too navigate this difficult stretch of road ahead. How do you take care of yourself during these trying times? Who can you confide in and collaborate with to provide you with needed perspective?

That last point is especially important.  As leaders, we so often focus on the well-being of others.  This is important.  However, we also need to make sure we take care of ourselves.  Know your limits.  Know what you need.  Make sure you take care of you and your family.

It may be some time before we have any clarity on the severity or full impact of COVID-19 and what it means for our country. During this uncertainty, people look to their leaders at all levels to provide the information, the guidance, and the reassurance that we will work through this best we can. This is an important time to be the leader others look to in this way.

We at MOR want to be as supportive during this time of uncertainty.  To that end, we ask that you please share with us your most pressing leadership challenges by emailing Tuesday Readings at [email protected] if you are inclined.  The most common concerns among our community will become topics of Tuesday Readings in the near future.


Brian McDonald
MOR Associates