Like so many of today’s CEO’s, I never imagined a storm of circumstances so demanding of resilience as we’ve seen in 2020. Overnight leaders have had to  address not only the physical, financial and psychological safety of their employees but also the future of their business, without any real insight into how the pandemic would play out. Or the social unrest. Or economic uncertainty.

Extreme times make for defining moments, and while it is not possible to predict how or when business will stabilize and return to some kind of normal, I have learned a lot about leading in extreme times. As a software as a service (SaaS) company founded on the science of resilience and operating in an agile model, we were able apply several proven competencies, foundational for building adaptive capacity, to rapidly organize an operational response.  Perhaps this came more easily to my team, because we are steeped in the science of resilience, but everyone can  learn and practice resilience – individually and as an organizational imperative. Business leaders can successfully organize thinking and change their behaviors to successfully cope and adapt in extreme situations.

At a high level, this involved helping employees focus on our plan for getting through the crisis: how we had to work, the steps we needed to take to stay safe, what challenges our customers were facing and how to help them prepare their workforces with resilience. There are several important steps to take to help organizations, teams and employees manage successfully. They were the key lessons of leadership from a time of extreme circumstances:

Making Cognitive Shifts: First, handle the disbelief about what was happening and overcome the human tendency to both minimize the impact (“it can’t happen here”) and manage the fears and anxieties that people naturally get overwhelmed by in the face of the unknown.

Continually Evaluating the Situation: We needed to effectively manage transitions from extreme and back to relatively stable – and potentially back to extreme – for our employees. And we had to provide a resilience framework and support for our customers to do the same.

Being a Sense-Maker: At the height of the immediate first phase of the crisis, as the pervasive impact of the pandemic began to be seen in almost every aspect of daily life and work, our leadership was put to the test. We knew that we would need to help our employees and customers restore a sense of self-agency. This involved serving as ‘sense-givers’ by helping make sense of a chaotic situation and how to get their bearings, how to maintain an accurate view of what was happening and what options we had.

Gaining Trust: Leaders in extreme situations gain the trust of their teams by showing the way, giving sense, and explaining the reality, rather than by giving commands. As leaders, we often wrestle with how much communication is enough. Most leaders are by nature strong problem-solvers and persuaders, and in the absence of ready and apparent answers, they can feel uncomfortable. There are so many established norms and beliefs around communication: from what is “need to know” to ”how often do I really have to ask how everyone is feeling?” Talking about challenges can be difficult, and potentially seen to diminish our stature when we don’t have all the answers. My experience was that honest dialogue about successes and challenges the organization is facing was essential, and made it possible to lead the organization effectively.

Trust Drives Performance: Frequent and regular communication underscored trust, and quickly helped us hit that threshold effect in which trust in leadership and performance are so intertwined that trust drives performance. It was a reality check on the trust that had been developed between the company’s leaders and the teams.  We knew from our research, and from studying teams that regularly work in extreme conditions — including the military, healthcare and first responders — that under extended periods of stress, trust between managers/leaders and employees is required to sustain focus on the mission of helping customers.

Employee Self-Care is a Leadership Priority:  We knew from the workforce cognitive insights in our database that the percentage of the population under extreme stress increased 40% in early March when stay at home orders went into effect (as compared to the first two months of 2020). There were also significantly higher levels of sleeplessness, anxiety and risk of depression.  Given that these dramatic effects were evident in our customer data, I knew they must be happening to my team, too.  As a leader I had to prioritize my employee’s attention to self-care and give them time to completely disengage from work to manage their own emotional wellbeing and their family responsibilities. We work with many F500 companies with extended, disparate workforces, some of which work on site in hostile environments, so I know the costs of incorporating mandatory PTO and recuperatory time at scale in large businesses are high.  Yet the mental health costs are astronomical — depression alone costs us 200 million lost work days per year.  The cost of burnout and the onset of mental health issues including PTSD related to lack of sleep, down-time and self-care cost significantly more than preventive spending. For me, I couldn’t afford to replace my people if they became unable to work. The future of our business was dependent upon these people giving their all during this time. While that was my anxiety to bear for the team, it was worth it. Giving people time to take care of themselves, helping them confront their fears and uncertainties, focusing them on the plan, making sense of what we were going through — honestly and personally — has gotten my company through this, thus far, very successfully.

Four Key Practices

In summary, these four key practices have proven essential for me in the last few months, and will continue to be going forward:

  1. Being open about my own emotional reaction to the crisis and making it safe for team members to share.
  2. Communicating with complete transparency about the state of the business, and the severity of the emergency.
  3. Developing a collective view of the crisis and the role we could play to mitigate its impact on the company and for our customers.
  4. Setting clear priorities and goals at each stage of the pandemic and assigning separate teams to work on the current projects and future initiatives at the same time.

We are in a dynamic and unstable world where being an adaptive leader is critical to guiding organizations through perilous times. When I think about my years leading teams I realize that, like so many leaders, I was trained to begin and end with the fourth practice: setting clear priorities and goals. Now, I see that the first three are essential to effective adaptive leadership, especially when we require people to serve in extreme conditions. It is imperative to talk and to listen — even when it’s uncomfortable — and it is important to be honest even when you are fearful. Employees and customers will value your competence, the cohesion of the vision you sustain, the sense of calm you bring, and your communication of clear priorities.