Life is beginning to return to something resembling normal in the United States. Now that we’re beginning to put the pandemic behind us – hopefully forever – it’s a good time to look in the rearview mirror to evaluate the qualities leaders need to shepherd their organizations through crisis, chaos, and change. The three qualities that stand out to me are character, consistency, and communication. I’m certain there are many others beyond these, but they are non-negotiable when the stakes are high, the path forward is uncertain, and the terrain is uncharted.
Webster defines character as “moral excellence and firmness.” It is the internal processor that translates our innermost conscience, the sense of what we should do, into behavior, or, what we do do. Character underlies the pattern of thoughts, words, and actions that form our reputation. It shapes whether we are known as a person who does the right thing or a person who does what is convenient, selfish, or otherwise inconsistent.
Michael Hyatt argues that character is the foundation of leadership – and that nothing has a greater reach or can make up for its lack. A person who is known to be of sound character can be trusted. Others will rely on their words and follow them and their advice readily. The pandemic showed us that character still matters, and, frankly, that we are lacking for leaders of strong character.
Throughout the pandemic, the United States has lacked strong leadership, and in many cases it is because those in charge simply weren’t trusted. In the early days of the pandemic, President Trump’s lack of standing as a man of character undermined his every move. Dr. Fauci acknowledged changing his positions based upon how the public might perceive his answers. Like Trump, his inconsistency has undermined his reputation. Forget their politics or your personal affinity for either of these men, the perception of weak character has undermined both of them.
And, they are not alone. Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House were rightly pilloried for accepting tens of millions in PPP loans that were designed to go to small businesses. Jeff Koons, who has sold works of art for $91.1 million and $58.4 million, and Kanye West, who took millions for his Yeezy clothing line, were in the same boat. Nobody rallies behind an opportunist. Not only was it flat-out wrong to use a global crisis for financial gain, the negative publicity for these brands had to leave them wondering if the proverbial drops in the bucket were worth it.
Leaders who have remained steady, taking in and processing data and refraining from changing course at every twist and turn, are more credible. Thoughtful consideration and deliberate action always top emotional reactions or following the latest trend.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, for example, rightly halted the NBA season in March of 2020. His decision sparked a series of sports cancellations that undoubtedly saved lives. Far from being a Covid alarmist, and in keeping with the idea that the best leaders processed the latest available data to inform their decisions, Silver spearheaded the NBA’s successful return to action in August 2020 in the form of the “NBA Bubble.”
Leaders who make decisions consistently often do so based on a set of core principles. Instead of one-off judgements, they rely on a bedrock construct for decision-making and apply it repeatedly to the situation at hand. Joanne Waldstreicher, Chief Medical Officer at Johnson & Johnson, wrote about the intense pressure her team was under early in the pandemic to reallocate thousands of doses of an HIV drug that was believed to be effective against Covid, even if it meant HIV patients would go without it. In the face of overwhelming demand, she and her team stepped back to take a measured, consistent approach informed by the latest science to decide what to do with the limited amount of medicine they had.
A leader’s greatest tool is the manner in which they communicate ideas and turn ideas into action. Communication is the key, and rising above the noise matters. In fact, leaders who have communicated openly and effectively are making the greatest impact – even when they are wrong. Regardless of your politics or perspective, I am sure you can point to a great communicator who has helped shape the public narrative, for better or worse. The manner in which we communicate and connect with others matters.
The leader who has probably drawn the most praise for her communication style during the pandemic is New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Adern. She has earned deservedly high marks for her authenticity, relatability, and ability to communicate to the layperson in a way that many politicians for whatever reason cannot. Say what you want about her country’s response to the pandemic, despite being described as “draconian,” her leadership was overwhelmingly embraced, with an 80% public approval rating.
One reason communication has been so vital throughout the pandemic is that business leaders have been put in a unique position – arbiters of truth about the state of Covid. According to a 2020 Edelman survey conducted in 10 countries, a higher percentage of respondents trusted their company’s CEO to tell the truth about the virus and its progression (54%) than they did their country’s leader (51%), the news media (50%), or journalists (43%).
Whether you’re leading a Fortune 500 company or a 4-person startup, there are ample lessons to be learned from how true leaders handled the unparalleled difficulties of the last year-plus. You’ll be well down the road of leading your company through any major change if you can master these 3 Cs: character, consistency, and communication.