The winners are those who regard COVID-19 as an integral part of the way they develop their organisation. Those who possess the strength to be vulnerable and to use that vulnerability actively to lead themselves and their organisation. And conversely, the losers will be those that insist on going back to business as usual as soon as there is a vaccine and restriction are lifted.

There is no doubt that it is in times such as these that we get a true picture of the operational foundation of our company: of how efficient we really are in both internal processes and supply chains.

The efficient emergency response that so many companies set in motion in the spring and their ability to quickly develop new solutions to new problems can teach us a lot about the capabilities, strengths and weaknesses of our organisations:

  • Where is the chain strong, and where is it under pressure?
  • How adaptive and ready for change are we really?
  • How can we use this situation to develop ourselves and our organisation?

Many of us asked ourselves these questions in the spring, but what about now? The burning platform is still there, but somehow, we have become inundated to the heat. Or basically fed up with it.

I would argue that it is in fact now, rather than in the spring, that our strengths and weaknesses become clear. In the spring, we were all in crisis mode. Now, we are beginning to realise that this will not be over within weeks or maybe even months. So the critical question becomes how we are able to use this situation to adapt and develop our organisation in this next normal. A next normal that is here now. Not one that awaits on the other side of COVID-19.

In other words: How can we learn to thrive in the heat burning our feet?

What is your mindset as leader right now?

“This is just another change we have to adapt to and assess needs and opportunities.”, “What will this mean to our current development portfolio?”, “How will this alter market needs in both the short and medium term?”, “Let us calibrate our quarterly scenarios.”

Common for these reflections and questions is an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no end state. There is only the next state. And this is the mindset that you need to adopt as leader in order to thrive as an individual and in order to help your company thrive going forward. This is the culture you need to nurture throughout your organisation.

The day after the government announced a nationwide lock-down in Denmark back in the spring, I had a (virtual) chat with a business associate. The day before, he had invited his executive team to discussions on a number of scenarios in connection with COVID-19. Not to try to predict where it would all end but to challenge the executive team on their strategic mindset and agility. And on that basis to assess changed priorities. Irrespective of the fact that the organisation had been shut down and that this involved a lot of work, this leadership focus was still critical to maintain.

Your mindset makes all the difference when it comes to your market position, and your mindset right now is an excellent test of whether you and your organisation are really as agile and adaptive as your strategy dictates.

There are a number of relevant questions you can ask yourself at both the operational, tactical and strategic level:

Operational

  • My immediate response to e.g. the lock-down in the spring: What did I feel – what were my reactions within the first 48 hours after the lock-down in my company?

Tactical

  • My response to new ways of working with virtual meetings and home office: What role did I take in the change and development processes going on in my organisation? Was I pro-active or re-active?

Strategic

  • What patterns do I see in my own behaviour? What is my behaviour pattern when there is a need for change? What can I reinforce and use going forward – what do I need to develop further? Is the picture I see of myself the same as my surroundings see?

One of the essential learnings from the answers to these questions is what your response is when there is uncertainty and a need for change. Do you try to control the situation? Do you try to find answers to all the questions, and do you find comfort in the answers? Or do you try to phrase questions and enable your organisation to answer or to enable your organisation to ask the right questions? There is a world of difference between the two mindsets driving these two approaches. And feel free to guess which approach will enable the strongest result.

Use your vulnerability as a strength

Vulnerability is what really stands out when talking to others in these times. An individual vulnerability caused by facing an entirely unexpected reality. A vulnerability and uncertainty that is shared by many of us. Whether these feelings are caused by concern for the future. Or by challenges in operating in an everyday where your home has been converted into a multi-functional work and private space. Or organisational vulnerabilities that stress test systems, management structures and adaptiveness to ensure not just daily survival but that employees and managers are in fact still motivated and thrive. Entire industries and sectors are suddenly facing extinction. Welfare societies are pressured to their utmost limits and are likely to be facing even more pressure in the future. And all of this is taking place at an unparalleled speed.

No wonder we are all feeling vulnerable.

There is absolutely no one who knows what the right thing is to do in this situation. No one has all the answers. The only question is whether you are willing to admit to this uncertainty and whether you have the courage and ability to lead and work on this premise. With the strength to expose this vulnerability. A strength that is a prerequisite to be able to learn from what is happening with yourself, your people and your organisation. A strength that is a prerequisite for fostering a culture where it feels safe to acknowledge uncertainty and doubt and to press on regardless. A culture where it feels safe to constantly try out new ways of working and thinking because the world around us is constantly changing.

The most powerful dialogue I have had was with a business associate who is part of the executive team in a large, private company. He is very much aware of what he is comfortable with and not comfortable with, and the executive team in this company are equally aware of what they do not know and cannot “control”. One week after the lockdown in the spring, he openly shared with his organisation his personal thoughts and feelings in this situation. What he was okay with and what was difficult. He was also open about the uncertainties within the organisation and about the basis on which specific initiatives were being prioritised.

The company in question managed to avoid a panic response. And more importantly, they managed to mobilise not just the executive levels but everyone in the organisation to find the motivation for developing with the new market situation. The company was consequently able to bounce back quickly and are already using the learnings from COVID-19 to take the next leap in organisational development.

The vulnerability is there. The only question is whether we turn it into a weakness or make it a strength. To be blind to your own vulnerability or try to conceal in the belief that you really do have all the answers will only make your vulnerability a self-enforcing weakness rather than a strength. Only when you have acknowledged your own vulnerability will you be able to use it as a strength. You can only create psychological safety for your employees if they see that vulnerability is acknowledged and embraced.