Digital Leadership - Overcoming Fear and Anxiety in the Covid-19 Crisis

by Lenwood Ross April 28th, 2020

Hello there!

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting interruption to our daily lives has created unprecedented uncertainty for families and organizations on a global scale. 

What does the world look like post Covid-19? Will I have customers? Will I be able to raise the funding for my non-profit? How will we operate given the new normal? How will our team respond to continued business interruptions and the inevitable loss of coworkers, friends and family? Will we even survive? 

The Leadership Gap

There are more questions than answers.

When there is a seemingly insurmountable challenge, we begin to view the world through the lens of the pain being caused by that challenge. We become so focused on the pain, that we lose sight of what we need to do to overcome the challenge.

This may sound like complaining, negativity, pessimism, gossip, doubt, frustration, depression, anger, or any combination of the above.

For leaders, we can lose sight of our most important leadership responsibilities.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to step up as a leader. But I failed.

The Chairman and CEO of the public company that I worked for, as well as our General Counsel, were under investigation. Because of my role in the company, I was right in the middle of it.

Uncertainty was high.

People across the company were on edge. There was management infighting and hundreds of tense board meetings.

For me, the crisis lasted for five years.

I was overworked, scared, and suffering financially. Insider trading rules prevented me from exercising stock options while my coworkers profited. I was under tremendous pressure.

The pain caused by the challenge obscured my vision and I lost sight of the people that I needed to lead.

I failed to communicate allowing fear, anxiety, and rumors to run rampant in my team and coworkers.

I had never experienced that kind of pressure. I was unprepared for the moment.

My lack of character and leadership development showed.

The Call to Empathy

SNL's Darrell Hammond made us laugh in the 1990s with his over the top impersonation of President Bill Clinton’s lip biting, “I feel your pain.”

Today, “I feel your pain” must be your mantra. This is where leaders seize the moment and thrive.

Listening to your struggling customers will help you to deepen your understanding of them.

You will be able to develop a customer experience that alleviates their pain, helps them accomplish what it is that they want to do, and create more value for them.

The same is true for your employees. Fear and anxiety are undoubtedly impacting their productivity. Listening to them will help to craft an employee experience that attracts, retains, and intensifies their loyalty to you and your organization.

My lack of empathy did the opposite.

I could not address a problem that I could not see.

Overcoming Fear and Anxiety in Uncertain Times

Uncertainty is the root of fear and anxiety.

A collapse in the illusion that we are in control feeds it.

The greater the crisis is, the more important it is to manage this uncertainty.

The four most important factors for the leader managing uncertainty are character, resourcefulness, team, and tools.

We see these factors at work in the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. He and his entire crew were stranded for almost two years from 1914 to 1916.

In a life and death struggle, Sir Ernest’s leadership skills saved the lives of all twenty-seven of the men stranded with him.

I recently completed Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell as part of Michael Hyatt’s leadership book club, LeaderBooks.

The story is miraculous.

Shackelton’s empathetic character developed from his experiences in prior expeditions was an essential ingredient in his selection of each team member, the development of his innovations in provisioning and packing, and his resourcefulness when the team was thrust from the comforts of their ship into the Antarctic’s elements.

Today, the ability to manage uncertainty is what separates entrepreneurial and managerial leaders.

The study and practice of entrepreneurial leadership have gotten much more focus during the last 10 years. The lessons of Internet 1.0 and 2.0, and the work of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Start-Up, and Steve Blank, co-author of The Start-Up Owner’s Manuel, Clayton M. Christensen, as well as others taught in business schools have prepared digital leaders for Internet 3.0.

Entrepreneurial leadership will be much more important in the post Covid-19 world.

Build Digital Culture Right Now

Leaders today can increase their capacity to manage uncertainty by building digital culture. Here are five things that I recommend beginning immediately if you have not already started.

1. Begin investing in digital collaboration tools that support remote work and accelerate your team’s productivity.

2. Get going on soft skills development for your leadership team.

3. Create a vision for your organization. Rethink how you will use digital to build customer relationships and create new value.

4. Reassess your partner relationships to determine their value.

5. Invest in new partner relationships that increase your resources as you manage through the crisis.

Moving Mountains

My generation’s journey has included much uncertainty. From the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dotcom Bust, 9-11 and the Great Recession, we have encountered several mountains along the way.

Today, Covid-19 seems like Mount Everest.

But this situation is not permanent.

There will always be uncertainty.

We are not able to control our circumstances. We can only control our responses to them.

Covid-19 isn’t preventing transformation. It’s accelerating it.

We can’t allow the present challenge to obscure our vision.

We may have been caught flat-footed in the present crisis. But the journey isn’t over.

Building digital culture today will begin to transform our organizations to compete and win.

Our teams will adapt more quickly to both our competitors and the rise of the Internet's third wave.

What will you do today to accelerate your digital transformation?


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