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In A Crisis, Be The Leadership Lighthouse

March 18, 2020

Free White and Black Lighthouse Near the Cliff and White and Red House Stock Photo

“A lighthouse can symbolize various things, such as overcoming challenges and adversity or guidance. It is most commonly used to symbolize a way forward and help in navigating through the world. … The first is of the lighthouse itself, which can symbolize salvation and safety, especially in the face of adversity. – source: reference.com”

The simile I like to use with my clients is that of leadership being a lighthouse.  People need to know that regardless of their visibility into a given situation or how difficult the seas of life can get, there is someone (or something) they can look to for guidance and security. According to Wikipedia, the two main purposes of a lighthouse are to serve as a navigational aid and to warn boats of dangerous areas.  Right now, this is what we need from our public, private and non-profit leaders.  On a micro level, this is what employees need from their CEO or a business owner.  There is a lot of fear and worry out there and it is growing.

We are always living with some level of uncertainty, but sometimes the level of volatility becomes more pronounced.  The recent Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an example of how quickly things can change and become tenuous.  For some people, this is literally a life-or-death situation.  For most people, it will be a health inconvenience.  I am not a scientist, nor can I predict the future; however, it is safe to say that the ramifications of this event will linger for quite some time.

It is important for leaders to step up during times of crisis.  We need influential and responsible people who will help us navigate the rough waters of the moment.  Of course, this isn’t always an easy task.   Wars and pandemics can last for extended periods of time and have devastating consequences.  Some fears are certainly justified.  However, hopelessness is not a good option for humanity.  It is also worth noting that thus far, humankind has found a way to navigate all previous widespread crises.  “This too shall pass” may sound trite, but it is true from a historical context.

Let me be clear, my purpose isn’t to downplay the threat, but instead to embrace the leadership reality (whatever it may be) and spur a productive response.  It is easy to feel powerless and vulnerable when you are dealing with a potentially hazardous situation. The unknown is especially scary.   Even when the actual individual risk may be relatively small.  It certainly doesn’t feel that way to the average person.

I am not a doctor, nor do I have a working knowledge of epidemiology, however, I do know that pandemics are bad and that the current coronavirus has an elevated mortality rate for people with compromised or weakened immune systems.  Those who suffer lightly may be the cause of mortality for someone else.  Any unnecessary loss of life is a tragedy, especially if there are collective and individual steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk.

What we, as leaders, need to do is to make the facts less confusing and more easily digestible to our people.  You cannot communicate enough in a crisis.  Thankfully, there are numerous public resources that can help us do this.  Please don’t abdicate this responsibility.  Once we have accepted this reality, the next step is to put a commonsense plan in place that prioritizes workplace safety. economic sustainability, and business continuity.  Employees who worry about their job security carry an even heavier burden.  Of course, plans are subject to change as events change but “winging it” is rarely a sound strategy.  Lastly, we need to make sure our plan is implemented urgently and thoughtfully with course corrections as needed.  We need to give our people hope that things will get better and that they are part of the solution.

Good leaders embrace their responsibilities.  They operate with consistent integrity, provide clarity around direction and priorities, remove unnecessary obstacles to success, lean into whatever challenges present themselves, leverage the talents of those around them to make the best possible decisions, value facts over opinions, never promise what they can’t deliver, and create a work environment where people feel respected, empowered, and protected.

None of us know how long this current crisis will go on.  As leaders, we just need to provide a positive way forward for those around us.  This storm will pass and another one certainly looms on the horizon.  It’s not the vagaries of the external environment that are the problem. Adversity is a part of life.  How bright our leadership lighthouse shines will impact whether we navigate the coronavirus journey successfully or the ship runs adrift or sadly even crashes.