The unexpected nature of COVID-19 and the resulting flood of high-stakes decisions has put leaders to the test in ways that they might never have imagined. In the midst of all this, it is important to acknowledge the profound challenges that the pandemic has created in terms of the work overload, stress, anxiety and painful decisions so many have had to endure.
Simultaneously, leaders must recognize that there are important opportunities to learn and grow from this once-in-a-century crisis. COVID-19 is the type of crucible event that has the potential to embed profound leadership lessons, accelerate development and forge critical skills. It can be transformative, but only if handled correctly.
Hardships like COVID-19 fall outside the widely recognized 70-20-10 framework of developmental experiences, which is defined as 70 percent challenging assignments, 20 percent developmental relationships, and 10 percent training and coursework. However, the Lessons of Experience research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership that gave rise to the 70-20-10 framework also points to how hardships like the pandemic can impact leaders’ development. Hardships contain many of the same elements that make challenging assignments a powerful source of learning, including pressure, high-stakes, unfamiliar responsibilities, and rapid shifts in new directions.
While hardships share elements similar to challenging assignments, they differ in important ways:
- They are often unplanned and difficult to control.
- Because of the extreme adversity associated with hardships, few organizations would intentionally put their leaders through such experiences.
- The pain often associated with going through a hardship can be a potential barrier to the learning and development that could otherwise take place.
- With challenging assignments, the majority of learning comes from the success of meeting the challenge. With hardships, the learning comes from the lack of success.
- Many of the lessons learned from challenging assignments are external in nature (“What did I learn about handling my job and working with other people?”), while the lessons of hardships are often internal (“What did I learn about myself?”).
- The lessons learned from hardships often have less to do with the events themselves and more with how individuals respond to them.
The unique features of hardships can make them more challenging to navigate than planned or controlled development opportunities, but also have the ability to offer rare insights and opportunities for growth. Specific developmental benefits associated with going through a hardship include:
- Improved self-awareness for leaders. Hardships force us to come face-to-face with who we are. The experience of hardship often reveals limitations, patterns, beliefs and skills leaders didn’t see or appreciate in themselves before. This shift in self-awareness is powerful. Leaders will have the chance to make new choices based on what matters; how they act, think and feel; and what they can and cannot do.
- Increased compassion for others. A significant dose of humility usually comes with hardship. It is never easy to confront the truth that we are not perfect, invincible or immune to tough and terrible things. But going through hardship can open leaders’ eyes to the hardships of others. Receiving support and help from others may motivate them to give support and help more readily. Their sense of compassion can grow.
- Resilience. Surviving hardship and willing ourselves to move forward builds added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures. Resilience allows leaders to be flexible and durable as things change. It teaches them to be open to learning and agile in their approach as they figure out what to do next.
Many hardships — such as career setbacks, ethical dilemmas or errors in judgment — impact specific individuals or small groups. Major societal and organizational crises have the power to impact everyone and often trigger subsequent hardship events with widespread impact, such as business failures and reductions in force. The scale and scope of the COVID-19 crisis is not just an opportunity to transform your organization’s leadership — it is an imperative. Here are five approaches for making the most of this and other hardships experienced by the organization.
No. 1: Observe how leaders respond. Crises have a way of revealing a lot about leaders — not just character, but also previously undetected strengths and areas in need of development. Because everyone is experiencing COVID-19 simultaneously, it provides a unique opportunity to view individual responses across a spectrum. Who is being proactive? Who is leveraging others? Who is seizing opportunities for innovation? Likewise, who is frozen by ambiguity? Who is pointing fingers? Who is sticking to past formulas for success that have little relevance to the current situation? As you form your perceptions and tap into others’, look for patterns and themes — what do they reveal about the current state of your leadership? What requires immediate attention, especially to help the organization combat the current crisis?
No. 2: Encourage reflection. Responding to COVID-19 has us in a perpetual state of cognitive and emotional overload. It is hard to slow down and find calm in a crisis like this, but leaders can’t uncover fresh insights and meaningful lessons if they don’t commit themselves to purposeful reflection on what they’ve encountered and how they’ve responded to it, both positively and negatively. “What … ?” “Why … ?” and “How … ?” questions help to challenge long-held perceptions about what it means to lead effectively and help surface new perspectives. Reflection should take place at both the macro (the overall situation) and micro (specific critical incidents of success or failure) levels to yield the most insight. Reflection should also take place both in (or close to) the moment to capture vivid insights as well as after the fact to enable more perspective.
No. 3: Engage in dialogue. Reflection is important, but it’s not enough. Actively engaging leaders to help them make sense of what is happening and what it means is essential. Again, questions are an important tool for unlocking hidden lessons and confronting potentially sensitive issues. Questions such as, “How has dealing with COVID-19 shaped you? What have you learned about yourself as a leader from this experience? What do you wish you had done differently?” can help leaders more carefully examine their role in responding to the crisis and inform their actions going forward.
No. 4: Seize teachable moments. In any crisis situation, exemplary leadership should always be recognized and rewarded, but any response to a crisis (even if the end result is a success) will almost certainly be marked by myriad mistakes, shortcomings and even outright failures. It would be a further mistake to let these instances pass by without either recognition or accountability. The most effective (but often the most challenging) path is to hold others accountable for their actions while also leveraging those actions as a learning opportunity. A good series of prompts to help extract learning is:
- Describe the situation.
- What did you do? Why?
- What was the outcome?
- What did you learn from your actions?
- How might you apply this learning going forward?
- How can I support you to make sure you learn and grow from this?
No. 5: Explore strategic implications. If you and your colleagues are engaging in the above actions, you will inevitably be gathering a substantial amount of formal and informal data about how your leaders have responded to this crisis. Now it is time to take your own moment to step back and reflect on the meaning of that data. What does this reveal about the leadership culture of your organization? What skills and abilities should be celebrated and reinforced? What vulnerabilities have been revealed and how should they be addressed? How can the organization’s leaders be better prepared for handling future crises? These and other insights should be incorporated into a COVID-19 after-action review and inform the HR planning process.
We are shaped not only by the challenges that we boldly step up to and successfully handle with grace and aplomb. We are also molded by those experiences that make us doubt ourselves and force us to struggle to come up with solutions. Now is the time to ensure your leaders benefit the most from this unfortunate opportunity and emerge stronger, wiser and more capable of connecting with others.