One of the most powerful aspects of leadership is the ability of leaders to change the conversation in their organizations because they are the leader. In other words, they can use the bully pulpit (their position as leader) to change the Zeitgeist (the current important conversations). They are the ones who can, by virtue of their position, define what is important for their organization in the given environment. They are the ones who can make a strategy or initiative top priority for their organization. I think this was best articulated by Ben Thomson of Stratechery in leaders in times of crises:
“This is the power CEOs have. They cannot do all the work, and they cannot impact industry trends beyond their control. But they can choose whether or not to accept reality, and in so doing, impact the worldview of all those they lead”
In recent times, you can see it playing out at country levels as well. Countries where the leaders took COVID 19 seriously and early on, they were able to change the conversation to the pandemic in their countries, thus making it a focus area of not only their government but also their population at large. And countries where the leaders did not take it seriously saw crowds gathering at beaches or going to movies or concerts or so on. The critical prerequisite here of course is that the leader must have trust of their organization or country.
This ‘power of leadership’ is especially important given the unprecedented and surreal situation all organizations are facing. We have all been conditioned over thousands of years to working in proximity. It is what gives us a sense of belonging and is what makes us a ‘team’. Even pure play tech companies like Facebook and Google have typically discouraged working from home for extended periods. There are exceptions like Automattic and Basecamp but a vast majority of us not only work in an office, but we want to work in an office.
In a situation like this, there simply isn’t time to gradually evolve into a largely distributed organization. And it is exactly times like these, where leaders must play an important role. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in the way we work– and working from home for extended periods is going to be around for a while in one form or other. I think it is important for leaders to hold frequent virtual town halls (and then also have other leaders cascade them down to their teams) and make this shift a continuous topic of conversation. By talking about it, leaders can have a huge impact in terms of how everybody thinks about teams, communication, and even operational issues like workflows, logistics, etc.
So leaders, focus on changing the zeitgeist – talk about why it’s important to shift the mindset, talk about why constant and frequent communication is critical, talk about how your organization is dealing with challenges, talk about why it is important to come together, talk about why it is important to lean in and not lean out.
If you do, then not only will you increase odds of your organization’s survival, but you will be in much stronger position when the dust settles.