What Battling Covid Taught Me About Leadership_David DeWolf_1200x675

What Battling COVID Taught Me About Leadership

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One day last December, our family got some news that would turn our world on its head. One of our daughters tested positive for COVID, despite being asymptomatic and despite having taken every precaution recommended by the experts.

Sometimes all the precautions in the world aren’t enough to keep COVID at bay, especially in what was then a pre-vaccine world. Eventually, every single one of us caught the virus, all the way down to our 1-year old daughter.

Thankfully, nobody other than me developed anything worse than a cough, sore throat, or mild fever. Unfortunately, I was absolutely floored by it. My fever spiked routinely, my body alternated between chills and cold sweats, and I had splitting headaches that were completely debilitating. Many days, I slept 20+ hours. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I physically couldn’t get out of bed for 2 weeks before my symptoms finally subsided. 

I know I ended up being one of the lucky ones. I lived to see the other side of COVID. I was never hospitalized, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t totally debilitated.

In a situation like the one that I was in, the last thing you need to be thinking about is whether balls are going to get dropped at work if you’re out for an extended period, or worse.

Here are a few tenets that we were fortunate to have already been working to instill in our team for years that really came in handy while I was laid out.  

Nobody, including you, is irreplaceable. 

In a healthy culture, anyone on your team should be able to step away for a short period of time without being missed. If you’re out for a week and things fall apart, something is clearly wrong with process, communication, and/or accountability. Being the glue that holds everything and everyone together is great up until the point the glue is unavailable. 

One way we consciously try to counteract this dynamic is this: I am adamant about our team truly checking out while they’re away from the office. This means appointing a designee to be their backfill while they are on vacation and, as much as humanly possible, staying off of email while they’re on vacation and even on weekends. Doing this at least 2 weeks a year gets everyone in the healthy habit of passing the reins to a coworker and trusting that things will be handled. 

More importantly, it’s critical to scale that leaders hire “load-bearing beams” that are smarter, stronger, and more experienced than they are. This not only helps to develop succession plans, it helps to ensure that leaders are set up for success. Nothing is more detrimental to an organization’s ability to scale than leaders who are unable or unwilling to hire exceptional talent that elevates their own performance.  

Empower your people.  

Most people who know me probably know the name Cheryl Nieder as well. Cheryl has been my assistant for 6+ years. At this point, she might as well be an extension of me. We have experienced so many situations together that she could probably write 98% of my emails. Oftentimes she reads my mind and completes my work before I even start it. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she could run most of my meetings in my absence. That’s how well she knows me and the way I think and operate.

So, while I was flattened by COVID, I asked Cheryl to respond on my behalf to anything that was pressing or time-sensitive. She knew who on our executive team to consult for anything she didn’t have an immediate answer to. I would trust Cheryl with my life, which made it very easy for me to trust her with my email.  

“It” can wait. 

We live in a world where we’re increasingly obsessed with instant gratification. Much of it can be chalked up to that phone buzzing in your pocket every five seconds, and the constant ping of notifications alerting you that you have new emails, texts, and Slack messages to respond to. And don’t forget the WhatsApp message from your cousin. Also, somebody you follow liked a Tweet. And the infrastructure package is really, really almost done. It just never ends.

Fortunately, whatever “it” is can also wait. Once upon a time, people conducted business via snail mail, telephone, and fax (I couldn’t tell you how). The point is, not every email is a 5-alarm fire that requires your immediate attention. In fact, I can’t remember the last one of those emails that I received. And at the end of 2 weeks, there were only a few issues that came up that required my personal input. 

As a result of my experience with COVID, I logged out of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I have not logged back in since and I could not be more thrilled with the decision. It has saved me significant time. I’ve learned that this “always-on” socialization actually undermined my socialization more than it helped.

Wrapping It Up – A Little Luck, a Lot of Planning

Looking back, I had the “benefit” of being sick over the Christmas holiday, some of which I’d already planned to take off to focus on personal planning. So, while we had some advantages in dealing with my unplanned absence for 2 weeks, I also credit everything humming along on auto-pilot to the work that so many of us have put into shaping our culture over the years.

The former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Branch Rickey, is often quoted as having said, “Luck is the residue of design.” I learned that John Milton used the phrase first, but I like Rickey’s full quote where he used the phrase, and I think it definitely applied in this case: “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”