March 11, 2020 is a day destined for the history books: “WHO Declares Coronavirus Outbreak a Pandemic.” It was that day that, all around the world, leaders began scrambling, ripping through the pages of their crisis playbooks (or quickly creating them), searching for their pandemic play-by-play. Shortly after came the day the markets crashed on March 16, turning the crisis to both a health and economic calamity.
Though etched in our minds with great infamy, it’s days like these that I believe make true leaders. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be the leaders we remember if it weren’t for the fiery trials that forged their legacies. This is true not only for politicians and activists, but also for business leaders. As president of The UPS Store, a business deemed essential throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen what works (and what doesn’t) when leading through a crisis, and how leaders can turn even a global pandemic into an opportunity.
Take a step back
The lightning pace and innovation of technology in today’s world has trained us to think that speedy decisions are good decisions. But we can’t overlook the wisdom in taking a step back to analyze the bigger picture and remember what truly matters, especially in times of uncertainty. Taking the time to slow down gives you the potential to see opportunities that can accelerate your business. Don’t make the mistake of being swept up in the current of crisis. Instead, throw out your anchor and stay steady in the storm.
Tunnel vision is a dangerous threat to leadership in times of crisis. Staying rigid in your thoughts and refusing to budge on “the way it’s always been done” is what causes ships to sink. We’ve seen how craftiness and innovation have kept so many small businesses afloat as they learned how to serve their customers in alternative ways. View challenges as an opportunity to make your operations stronger and more in tune with the current needs of your customers.
Be flexible, yet disciplined
Seems contradictory, right? How can you lead with flexibility while encouraging discipline? It’s a subtle, yet harmonious balance that can result in a workforce that flows with great efficiency. For example, when the pandemic first hit, everyone was experiencing panic and confusion at different levels. As a leader, it’s important to understand that not everyone is in the same place. Leading with empathy and understanding is a sure step toward gaining the trust of your colleagues, something that is imperative in maintaining calm in times of crisis.
That being said, maintaining structure and discipline is still mission-critical for a business, especially in an economic downturn. True discipline comes down to the small stuff. Going the extra mile, bringing an additional idea to the table or thinking one additional line outside of the box. Championing discipline starts at the top, making it important that leaders lead by example.
As pandemic fatigue settles in, leaders must not forget the power of appreciation – for customers, employees, colleagues and suppliers. Making time for gratitude amidst high-strung emotions not only helps your mental and physical state but also fosters a culture of gratitude around you. Your employees have sacrificed a lot during this time to keep your business afloat. Remind them just how valuable and appreciated their efforts are.
It seems clear now that our world will experience the effects of COVID-19 for much longer than we hoped and anticipated. My advice for leaders? Hang on tight and don’t let go. Stay true to yourself as a leader and the values of your company, even when things take an unexpected turn. Resilience goes a long way and can be infectious. True leaders are those who can brush the dust off, keep calm and carry on – all while inspiring others to do the same.
No matter the form it takes – whether health, economic or natural – crises should be seen like kilns. They have the potential to do serious damage, but they also have the potential to refine, flesh out impurities and create something more valuable than what went into it. The question is up to the leaders, will you let it engulf or refine you?
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