A retired general and Navy SEAL on how to be a true leader during the coronavirus outbreak

Retried General Stanley McChrystal and former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell discuss how to be a true leader during the coronavirus outbreak.

Since January 2020, many of us have watched the spread of the coronavirus and the responses by both governments and businesses with fascination and dread. The transmission patterns have been unpredictable and hard to detect. And those two variables — hard to predict, hard to detect — amplify how challenging it is for large institutions — like governments and corporations — to know how to respond effectively.

These observations remind us of our early months fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq: We struggled to keep up with the pace of events, needed to unlearn conventional management rules and had to learn to lead in a totally new way.

As the fight grew increasingly violent, we were forced to adapt our leadership and management practices into something radically different. And that included aligning our strategy while our task force was dispersed across 27 countries — often as individuals or in very small teams. It was more important to put our people closer to the problem than to each other, and the problem was spread around the world. But we couldn’t lose the synergy that traditionally comes from trust, constant communication and close physical proximity.

Defeating a networked problem like the coronavirus demands a similar networked response; any organization will fall behind, and ultimately fail, if it relies solely on conventional bureaucracy and the slow sharing of information. Below are some ways leaders can more effectively lead their organizations through this critical window.

Communicate

Coordinating operations amongst physically dispersed individuals is tricky. Much of the communication that makes most organizations function does not unfold in Slack channels, instant messaging, emails or phone calls. Short interactions in hallways or around coffee machines are the hidden elements of human interaction that create synergy, but also build trust and confidence.

Losing these interactions in a remote-work environment means leaders need to start communicating with more regularity and breadth to their organization. One email will not suffice. Regularly assure employees that your business is going to adapt its processes and behaviors to make remote work as non-disruptive as possible. Start communicating the new ways people will meet, share information and make decisions as your company, or parts of your company, shift to a remote-work status.

Set realistic goals

This is not business as usual, but you can still succeed. Your role as a leader is to be brutally honest about what is achievable in the coming weeks and months as this disruption continues to ripple across the economy. Revise targets and timelines if necessary, but communicate real targets. The best thing you can do is keep people focused on an achievable plan that they understand clearly. The worst thing you can do is to ignore, in your internal communications, the impacts that are already rippling across the economy.

Be patient

Many of your employees, especially the younger ones, have not experienced turmoil like this in their careers. Some of them will have family members affected by the coronavirus or will be very anxious about a family member becoming ill. All of this will likely cause changes in behavior, increased needs to take time off, and an expectation to hear from their leadership more regularly. Be patient, but start communicating now. It is your responsibility as a leader to be a source of calm and steady for them.

Review etiquette

Prepare today for remote work with an IT audit. Make sure you have access to the right number of licenses and host seats for high-end video teleconference software. Review security protocols with your employees — not just VPN protocols, but also remote-work etiquette like not taking confidential work calls from coffee shops.

Designate an employee to run meetings

Start now to ensure your teammates are comfortable with your remote meeting software. Running meetings with a fully remote workforce is very challenging on the person running the meeting. Appoint a meeting controller who runs the agenda and keeps the meeting flowing smoothly. This shouldn’t be the senior executive — they should be focused on listening and asking questions; but it shouldn’t be a junior note-taker either. When our Task Force used a daily remote meeting as the cornerstone of running a global organization, we had to be disciplined about senior leadership presence on camera: Look engaged, ask non-yes or no questions, know the name of the person briefing and talk to them as people. These seemingly minor leader behaviors will have a disproportionate impact on organizational tone during remote-work status.

Appoint a chief of staff

A chief of staff can be specifically tasked with overseeing a transition to remote-work status. You are changing how your organization operates but still demanding high standards and outcomes. You will need help driving that — and an empowered chief of staff is your biggest weapon. Even if your organization doesn’t use the title, or you cannot carve off someone full time, know who you can go to for an extra assignment for the next few months to help you conduct remote meetings and remote decision-making with speed and confidence.

This is not a simple or easy process. It took us several years to get this remote-status model operating at a seamless level in the fight against Al Qaeda, but that was because we had no clear idea at the outset of what we needed to become. Today, the threat is obvious and similar — a rapidly expanding network threat. And the need to massively reduce social interaction is a very clear mandate. To get there, much like we encountered in Special Operations, this will require leaders to start taking action today and begin one of the biggest challenges any leader will face in his or her career: Take on and start solving the hardest problem in front of you before the directive to do so shows up. If you’re waiting for the directive, you’re already falling behind this growing threat. But like with any of history’s hardest problems, leaders with steady resolve and a willingness to take action will see us through.

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