Leadership Under COVID-19 Starts With Leading Yourself

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Over the past few days we have seen all of Italy go into quarantine, many US colleges close their doors and the NBA cancel its season. These were all difficult decisions made by leaders that have far-reaching implications. 

US public health experts are issuing dire warnings and leaders ranging from governors to preschool administrators are being forced to make high-risk choices on the basis of incomplete information.  

With a looming threat like COVID-19, it’s natural for leaders to focus on what they should do about that threat. But real leadership starts with something closer to home: you.  

Leading yourself  

Leadership starts with self-management, something we call leading oneself. It is the first part of our four-part leadership framework: leading oneself, leading teams, leading the organization, and leading the business. 

Leading yourself means having awareness of your thoughts, feelings and impulses. It includes understanding your habitual ways of responding to the world and taking a critical look before you act with intention. A conscious leader doesn’t react. She responds.  

Because we confuse leadership with authority and confuse getting things done with taking meaningful action, we often overlook this self-management aspect of leadership.   

Leading under COVID-19 starts with questions about you:

What is your physical and emotional state right now? Are you at your best or at least reasonably grounded? Are you rested? Are you exhausted, panicked, and frazzled? The latter set of feelings are human and normal–but you are not going to be an effective leader if you act out of them. Figure out what you need to ground yourself to give your best.  Leadership requires self-care and no one else is responsible for your own self-care.

What are your habitual responses? Are you obsessively reading sensational news about coronavirus online, refreshing each 15 minutes to see what new horror is occurring? Or are you avoidant, preferring not to know? A leader needs to be informed, but being informed isn’t the same thing as living all day in the pinball machine of online stimulation.

How are you going to respond to criticism, anxiety and passivity? You will probably experience all of them. When university leaders in the U.S. this week announced the cancellation of in-person classes, they immediately faced a tsunami of criticism, angst and general backseat driving. Not everyone will be your fan. How are you going to deal with that?

How do you want to be today? Write a few adjectives. Strong and confident? Empathetic and open? Cautious and alert? We spend lots of time planning our days and deciding what to do. But how we intend to be is equally important. You decide. If you take time to reflect you can figure it out. 

When are you going to be most challenged today? Figure out ahead of time how you will manage yourself when that point hits. Often there is a predictable behavior, thought or feeling that signals you are hitting your maximum and are on a downward slide-your personal canary in a coal mine. 

My canary-in-a-coal-mine signal is when I experience myself as highly irritated about some aspect of my work and life . . . and then discover I’m highly irritated about every aspect of my work and life. When I discover this, I know that I’m no longer grounded. I’m not capable of being a good leader in that moment, and I need to step back and ground myself before I can be a leader again.

Leadership starts with self-management Share on X

The rest of the model also starts with questions.

Leading teams

What do others need from me right now? What is going to help their own leadership in this crisis? It might be what your team is asking for isn’t what they actually need from you. They might most benefit from a “we’re going to make it” optimism, a “we’re going to keep marching along” doggedness, or “let’s get real about how we’re feeling” empathy.  

Leading the organization

How do you need to navigate across the organization right now? This might be in order to contribute to larger decisions, gather information or garner resources. As a leader, you can’t just stick to your knitting and manage your own shop.  

A key form of alignment is to link your organization’s  actions during the COVID-19 crisis to your organization’s stated values. If “client service” is a value, your plan of action should tie to that. If being “student-centered” is your organization’s value, your plan of action should be grounded in that value. If “innovation” is a value, link to that.  

Leading the business 

Everyone has a business, including nonprofit organizations and governments. Your business is what you are doing in the world. How is your strategic landscape changing under COVID-19? How are all the ingredients of your revenue or funding model going to be affected? Is this a temporary crisis or a new reality? Don’t just look at your preferred scenario–look at other scenarios as well. You probably won’t know the answers to these larger questions but you start by raising these questions.  

You don’t need a position of authority to be a leader, and having a title in itself doesn’t make you a leader. You’re a leader when you influence others to attain a positive result. All this starts with giving yourself the space to ask: what does it mean today to lead myself? 




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