The Servant Leader in Crisis

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Headlines are flying by faster than hand sanitizer and toilet paper off the shelves, names and data are updated frequently, and even a virus’s name has become more precise. The coronavirus is no longer accurate. Truth be told, it never was because it is truly a “novel” version of the broader group of coronaviruses. Hence, it is now called COVID-19. So what is a leader to do when there are in fact so many things to be done? People, profit, and purpose all need to be protected, and few MBAs prepare you for a pandemic.Our world desperately needs strong leadership in crisis.

Reading this article posted on Deloitte’s website took me back to where I was on September 11, 2001, the result was the need to reflect on the lessons I learned then. So to help put our current crisis in perspective, I thought I’d share this great article and highlight a few lessons from twelve years ago, where I reflected on an event that is now almost two decades in the rearview mirror but still baked into the psyche of leadership today. Perhaps this will help us connect a few dots.

Written September 11, 2008

Fear and Remembrance

Recently a reminder about life came back to me from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Men and women alike admire Indy, his ingenuity, courage, charm, good looks, and overall resourcefulness. Who doesn’t want to be like Indy, to hang out with him, or to be the object of his affection? Not exactly what you would expect for an article on business or leadership, I suppose, but hear me out. Indy, after losing the ark to the Nazis, announces to his friend, “Get back to Cairo. Get some transport to England … boat, plane, anything. Meet me at Omar’s. Be ready for me. I’m going after that truck.” Saulach asks, “How?” To which Indy replies, “I don’t know … I’m making this up as I go.”

I would argue that more often than not when we are entering a meeting to kick off some project or leading some massive organizational or cultural change effort, on some level we are making it up. Oh, it may be an informed effort based on years of experience, education, tried-and-true methodology, and expertise, but the outcome is not always certain. Even when strategizing to straighten out some business challenge (these are just plain problems, but we are more sophisticated and want it to sound positive, so we call them challenges; who are we foolin’?), again, we’re making it up!

Today marks the seventh anniversary of 9/11. I actually had the honor of attending a meeting that author and speaker Stephen Covey held in Columbus, Ohio, on that day in 2001. Two items stand out from that day beyond the tragedy and the acts of terrorism perpetrated that day.

First, Covey spoke about how many folks operate in this life from a viewpoint of “scarcity.” There isn’t enough of everything to go around, so they are driven by fear to hoard it, whatever the “it” may be. For these folks, the glass is always half empty, and therefore, they must pursue whatever it takes to fill the glass back up.

Second, Covey said that he understood that many of us had activities we were required to do in light of the day’s tragedies, but he was going to continue his work at the conference because to stop would be giving in to fear, which is precisely what they, whoever “they” were at the time, would have us do.

So as the events of the COVID-19 continue to unfold so many emotions, thoughts and memories come flooding back from two decades ago. While I listened to Covey back then my view was that my glass was always half full. However my optimistic half-full glass changed that day, I discovered that the glass was neither half-full nor half empty. Both views still wonder where and when the glass would be filled, and at some level, fear controls both points of view. Believe me, both pessimists and optimists are hoarding toilet paper.

Leadership in Crisis

Leaders today, resilient and good ones, would agree with what George Patton once said: “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan next week.” Because no one precisely knows what will happen next, leaders would be served to do the following:

  1. Take action today. A 1° course correction can be made tomorrow and next week.
  2. Operate and lead with a view of abundance versus scarcity. This allows leaders to be decisive, demonstrating calm to counteract the panic and craziness aroused in all of us.
  3. Be a servant first. Having a good plan today and operating with an abundance view allows leaders to be servants first.

One should still be prudent, listen, stay informed, relying on good sources like the CDC, while being cautious—without being driven by fear or panic. We can instead say that my cup isn’t half full or half empty … it is overflowing! There is a wellspring that keeps my cup constantly full. My mission in life has therefore changed, and my new goal is to share. To splash life on people, to fill their cups up with that which flows from mine, to go through life leaving the colorful stains of my life imprinted on the lives of others. To do otherwise would be giving in to fear. King David uttered these words from his famous Psalm 23 “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” My years of working, leading in business, developing and leading training classes, even mentoring both young and old, haven’t completely prepared me for this adventure. But my cup is overflowing.

So can you admit to “making it up as you go” during this season of national crisis? Is your cup half full, half empty, or overflowing? I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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