Leading in Covid-19 days: How can I fly like an Eagle, when I am surrounded by turkeys?

by Didier Marlier on Friday March 27th, 2020

Stanley McChrystal is a former Army general whose unusual leadership style earned him several victories in the war against unconventional opponents such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. In an excellent NYT article, he drew a comparison between battling unpredictable insurgents and winning our war against Covid-19.

General McChrystal’s advice to leaders in chaotic times is to:

  • Be visible and present (don’t hunker down)
  • Demonstrate candor (be honest and transparent)
  • Give up authority, as General McChrystal recognizes that the people close to what happens know better than the bosses back at headquarters
  • Be more compassionate that you normally would be

And who would I be to challenge such an acclaimed leader? But what I see now are different conditions to leading an army against other human beings. “Corona Leaders” are fighting a totally unpredictable enemy, that doesn’t think nor react like a human. We truly are into the “chaotic” context described by Dave Snowden and mentioned in my recent blogpost.

The seven leaders I have carefully observed since one month have a Hell of a situation to deal with: Imagine you are not the leader but one of seven leaders who collegially run your organization. One holds the title of CEO but it simply means that this woman is a “primus inter pares” and for one year only. The authority is shared. Each one of you has their own department, such as Finance, Training & Education etc. But the others have their say in the decisions you take in your area, should they impact the whole organization. To make things worse, your direct reports are very independent minded and can be quite rebellious with a sort of “it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission” mindset… And, of course you hold a sort of incestuous relationship with your huge number of subordinates (8.57 million) who may decide whether or not you keep your job, and they come from four very different cultures. You have recognized Switzerland and its Bundesrat (Federal Council) leaders.

As they humbly recognize, none of them were prepared for the sort of cataclysm that hit the country and the whole World. At first, I have to admit that I was concerned and curious to observe their actions and reactions. I am now hugely respectful about the way these three women (one of them being the honorary President) and four men who represent political parties from left to nationalist right, lead together.

Here is what I have observed about what they do outstandingly well. Some of the points recoup General McChrystal’s some others less, but I doubt he would reject them:

  • No Power distance: Power Distance happens when leaders intimidate their people, when they create a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) feeling that they consider themselves superior to their people. This creates a lack of Trust and of common Purpose. The Federal Council’s bi-weekly press conferences, live on TV, the didactic tone of the leaders, the way they take on sometimes stupidly provocative, repetitive or “single cause” questions, the way they rapidly invite their “subordinates” into the discussion contribute to build a feeling that these people are leaders who do not confuse “seniority with superiority”
  • Transparency and Humility: Trust happens when leaders are transparent and humble. That is exactly what they do in those public conferences. In disruptive or chaotic times, leaders who claim that they “know”, that they have the solution to the problems aren’t credible. They lie and manipulate the masses and their inept leadership risks to engage their supporters towards the brick wall. The Federal Counselors also show humility by simply recognizing that they try their best, while things will continue to change. They deal with their anxious people in a honest (transparent) and humble manner.
  • Empathy and Unconditionality: Contrarily to some of their “colleagues” in other countries, their much needed flexibility towards the measures to adopt and their willingness to adapt is counterbalanced by a non-negotiable stand: “We will not let our people down!“. That is a powerful engagement and strong statement! I bet many people having blindly entrusted their leaders with their Future now regret not being Swiss…
  • Lead by example: It is the credibility test, especially when you are going to demand sacrifices from your people. They will scrutinize you, in the hope to spot an incoherence between your discourse and your actions.

Stay tuned! I am working flat-out with one of the World’s top five Business Futurists, Gerd Leonhard, to prepare a one to two hours webcast on post Corona perspective and what will have to change in leadership terms. It is going to be one of our contributions to you and your organizations: a bit of hope, reflections and best practice sharing about the best we see emerge in those difficult moments. As Gerd says: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste!”

Protect yourselves, protect your loved ones! And let us be ready to roll our sleeves-up when the tsunami will have passed. There will be a lot to change and reconstruct!

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