In a crisis, leaders straddle the fence.

Crises are most often over-managed and under-led.  ~ Eric McNulty & Leonard Marcus

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

I mentioned in previous posts that I moved to a new home a few weeks ago, during the pandemic stay-at-home order. As the order extends into May, I frequently think about something my movers did when we arrived at my new home. It’s a metaphor for the challenge leaders face in the COVID crisis. The movers assumed that if something was in a specific room at my previous home that it would go in that same room in my new home. That was not always the case.

I used the opportunity of everything I own being loaded in a truck into an uncertain and chaotic state, to reimagine how it could function even better in a completely new state once it arrived at my new home.

Take Advantage of the COVID Opportunity

That’s how I see effective leaders manage through the crisis of COVID-19. They aren’t looking for ways to return to “normal” (i.e., put everything back in the same room from which it came). They are taking advantage of the opportunity (albeit a forced opportunity) to reimagine how their organizations could be even better when the metaphorical moving truck finally arrives at their new home.

Eric McNulty and Leonard Marcus in HBR recently said, “For nearly two decades, we’ve researched and observed public and private-sector executives in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. What we’ve learned is that crises are most often over-managed and under-led.” “Leading involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome over this arc of time. The focus needs to be on what is likely to come next and readying to meet it. That means seeing beyond the immediate to anticipate the next three, four, or five obstacles.”

I’ve also seen another perspective that McNulty and Marcus highlight. Leaders who are jumping in to help with an all-hands-on-deck mindset and are being seduced by the adrenaline of managing in a crisis. Personally, I think it can build morale for leaders to roll up their sleeves and join those on the frontline, but, only for a time. A critical part of leadership is preparing the organization for the future and leaders simply can’t do that if they are sucked into day-to-day crisis response, especially over time.

Leaders Straddle the Fence

This is where leaders really have to straddle the fence. Demonstrating that they are empathetic regarding the current day-to-day challenges (show grace), while at same time, planning and preparing for the future (being bold).

I’ll admit, this is far easier said than done. Here’s one way to straddle the fence.

  • Start small. At the end of every day, write down one thing you did to plan or prepare for the future.
  • If you need more accountability, ask someone to check-in with you and ask what you are doing to prepare your organization for the future.
  • Then, strive for more than half of your time being spent on planning long-term and preparing for the future.

Straddle the fence and lead with bold grace.

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