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The Three P’s of Pandemic Leadership
“The new normal…”
“These unprecedented times…”
No matter which way you frame it, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and work. The speed and scope of the pandemic has given businesses of all sizes tremendous challenges to overcome.
I was part of one of those companies. I joined SERVPRO in the middle of March, just as the effects of COVID-19 were being felt across the USA. In addition to adjusting to a new job, I was tasked with leading a completely new team remotely.
Crisis leadership is one thing, but pandemic leadership is entirely another. Add that to a hefty dose of remote working, and you’re sure to run up against a challenge (or two). However, the experience has certainly taught me about leadership, especially when times are tough
For some managers, the opportunity to manage through a crisis is exciting. However, it can be tempting to operate in your comfort zone, and to make decisions in the heat of the moment.
In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, experts Eric Nulty and Leonard Marcus caution managers against these tactics: “For leaders who have risen up through an organization or in a single industry, managing a crisis can feel thrilling. The trap is that you’re often returning to your operational comfort zone. Your adrenaline spikes as decisions are made and actions are taken. You experience a feeling of adding tangible value. However, it is like a sugar high that is quickly followed by a crash.”
Times of crisis are times to play the long game, to do your best to anticipate what will happen and give yourself enough room for error when those guesses are (inevitably) wrong.
Much of this comes down to trusting the systems that your business has in place, which is difficult, especially if you’re a new executive at a company. When I joined SERVPRO, I had to trust the systems that were in place and the employees that I was responsible for managing. I had to be mindful that we were all going through an adjustment, and to be patient with myself and my new team as we navigated a new normal.
At the end of the day, a pandemic is a trying time for your employees. They’re worried about their families and their futures. Now is the time to exercise patience, and to come to them with understanding.
Leaders are required to wear many hats: you’re supposed to be creative, ambitious, kind, understanding, and motivational – all at once! However, I would argue that one of the most important traits of a leader (or of a successful person in any profession) is perseverance.
This is especially true in the context of a pandemic. In a recent article for Forbes, transformational change expert Rob Carucci describes leadership in crisis beautifully: “Sometimes we step into new chapters of leadership with the wind at our back, ready to ‘take things to the next level.’ But commonly, new leadership chapters put us squarely in the face of gale-force headwinds, testing every limit of our abilities, patience and tenacity.”
There is a lot of truth to this – and perhaps if the circumstances weren’t what they are, there would have been no reason to take it to the next level. However, with our company being in the business we are in, we had to go to that next level. Our service professionals were on the front lines of sanitizing and disinfecting facilities, residences, military bases and everything in between from the onset of this pandemic.
We had a duty to ensure we could continue to provide our services and then some, which is why we worked so hard – remotely – to launch our Certified: SERVPRO Cleaned program to help businesses and industries throughout the country prepare to reopen when allowed, with the ability to ensure their customers know their facilities have undergone deep clean and disinfecting by our company.
By launching this program and persevering through the challenges we all faced, I felt that our team morale was high – we knew we could be part of a solution to this global pandemic. That’s incredibly humbling.
Mahatma Ghandi said it best: “Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”
Staying positive is an important part of pandemic leadership – and leadership in general. Simply put, it’s easier to follow a positive person. As a manager, it’s no longer our job to get work done ourselves: it’s about inspiring others to get excellent work done. “People are drawn to positivity”, says management expert Victor Lipman in a recent article for Forbes. “No one wants to take a long ride on a downbound train.”
However, I feel that we have a tendency to oversimplify positivity, especially in the workplace. Being positive doesn’t mean that we’re happy all the time, or we act like everything is fine when it decidedly is not. It’s about being optimistic in times of crisis, embracing changes and thinking about the future when it may not exist at all.
It’s also about believing in yourself as a manager. In a recent article for Fast Company, leadership coach Jennifer Jay Palumbo cites self-belief as a critical part of success. “You have to believe in yourself and your idea no matter how the person in the room reacts or not,” she says. “Trust that you’re talented and smart enough to figure it out and still accomplish the task at hand.”
Patience, perseverance, and positivity are all important parts of pandemic leadership. However, I’ve found that the most important part of navigating these times is coming to your employees from a place of understanding and empathy – and doing your best to put yourself in their shoes. That kind of understanding is something we’ll all need as we move forward.
About the Author
Michael Z. Stahl is the chief marketing officer of SERVPRO, a leader and provider of fire and water cleanup and restoration services, and mold mitigation and remediation. He was previously executive vice president and chief marketing officer of HealthMarkets. Stahl holds the chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU), associate in insurance accounting and finance (AIAF) and associate in reinsurance (ARe) designations, and earned a bachelor of science in economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
A Kansas City native, he is in the process of relocating to the Nashville area with his wife and four children.