The Litmus Test for Leadership — When Values Collide During a Pandemic

When Mike Tyson was asked by a reporter whether he was worried about Evander Holyfield and his fight plan he answered, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Most work communities establish values to guide the culture in their organizations. It is relatively easy to define a set of values to be hung as posters on office walls or to be printed on coffee mugs. It is harder to sustain those ideals through tough sales targets and challenging project deadlines. The hardest test for authentic leadership is when those values conflict with each other during an unprecedented crisis.

Employees Are Assets, Aren’t They?

As an example, consider a commitment to deliver an exceptional outcome to your company’s customers versus ensuring employee well-being while doing so. In 99% of the situations, if there is a conflict between delivering business results and an employee’s personal safety, the decision is a no brainer. However, in a pandemic like COVID-19, the need for personal safety puts more than a dent in the financials of a company. If you heard a business leader say on a sunnier day, “Employees are our assets”, their actions in the last two weeks will have revealed their authenticity.

Many governments have issued a strong advisory for people to work from home where their jobs allow this. On one hand, there are stories of companies proactively taking a stance to have their employees avoid commute and stay remote. However, there are more instances where tone-deaf executives are demanding their employees to be in the office, even when their role allows them to be productive remotely. David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and co-founder of Basecamp, is publicly calling out tech employers who are not allowing employees to work remotely on his Twitter account.

The Signs of A Truly Authentic Leader

Here’s what you should expect from business leaders who are truly authentic and committed to your safety.

Vulnerability

No one knows with certainty how this pandemic will evolve, including the experts. Authentic leaders will not hide their anxiety behind fake curtains of confidence. They will accept the uncertainty of unchartered waters and commit to whatever actions are needed to overcome the crises. They will acknowledge how the current situation will make it harder for the company to fulfill it’s near-term commitments to the customers. They will accept that in an environment where signals are changing every few hours, mistakes could happen in the choices the company will make.

Ownership

Committed leaders will take the burden of the decision on themselves and urge you to go home. Period. Some others may institute approval processes and policies and transfer that burden to you if you chose to work from home. The least committed will poke holes in the guidance provided by the scientific community and ask you to show up in the office, even when you can perform the role remotely.

Compassion

It cannot be business as usual for any company in the middle of a pandemic, especially if sustained remote work is new for most employees. Leaders who are mindful of this reality will make accommodations for changing planned milestones. They will make you part of the conversation on how best to handle business impact because some employees are unable to work while they scramble to arrange childcare in absence of schools. They will cut down the usual bureaucracy if you need to invest in setting up a home office. They will keep a pulse on your mental well-being, not just your productivity.

Culture is How You Resolve Conflicts

Professor Clayton M. Christensen outlines the following in his book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”:

You can tell the health of a company’s culture by asking, “When faced with a choice on how to do something, did employees make the decision that the culture ‘wanted’ them to make?”

This pandemic is a challenge to business leaders all over the world on how they address the conflict between having to serve their customers versus ensuring employee well-being and safety at a scale never been tested before. If you are a leader for a group of people, what has helped you make your choice?

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