No living generation has ever experienced a pandemic. When the novel coronavirus knocked on our door, there was no playbook to rely on. We are in virgin territory, blindly Brailleing our way into a very uncertain future. As much as we pray for a quick resolution to this crisis – sufficient and reliable testing and tracing devices, a vaccine sooner than later, perhaps – the brutal reality is that the direct and indirect consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be with us for a very long time. The life-threatening consequences of this disease, its horrific impact on our healthcare systems, and the extraordinary and overwhelming damage to our economy are beyond our capacity to absorb.
For leaders everywhere, this is a defining moment.
Many of us experienced another defining moment. On September 11, 2001, I looked out my office window in lower Manhattan and watched as a jet flew across the Hudson River straight toward me, turn left, and slam into the south tower of The World Trade Center. That day, and all its aftermath, is indelibly etched into my soul. My brother’s name is carved into the stone of the Weeping Pools at 66N. The memories of that day remain too vivid, too painful. A cycle of fear, panic, and anxiety hit people everywhere, both near and far.
The pandemic we are in the midst of is, however, not comparable to 9/11, which was confined in time. Much as we wish today to go back to business as usual, to return to the jobs we lost, the ballgames, concerts, industry conferences, and dinners out that we miss, our ability to gather together will be severely limited for an extended period of time, perhaps long into the future. And unfortunately, as time moves forward, everyone will know someone who tested positive, or someone who died.
Almost every crisis has a beginning, middle, and end. The end of the impact of this pandemic is not yet in sight.
However, I know from my experience on 9/11 that how leaders treat their employees during this crisis will forever define their company’s culture, and how leaders treat all stakeholders will forever define their company’s brand. In the aftermath of September 11th, the only thing that mattered to me was to care for the physical and emotional safety of my employees. What else could be more important? In the end, we only have each other.
For leaders, there are no easy decisions going forward. Our fight for survival – for our physical and economic health – is forcing us to make existential ethical choices. The pain caused by COVID-19 is overwhelming, and palpable. Ethics is how we choose, and how we respond to everyday decisions that confront us. We express our choices both through our actions, as well as our inactions, i.e. what we do, as well as don’t do. Words without actions are an empty chalice. In the midst of uncertainty and anxiety, the choices we make in the days ahead will define us as individuals, organizations, and as a society – forever.
Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners