A Defining Moment: Dealing With Disruption

For most of my career, my routine was predictable. I awakened early, well before dawn. After showering and getting dressed, I’d pour a cup of coffee into my travel mug, get into my car, and begin the 50 mile drive to my office in lower Manhattan. Upon arrival I would check my in-box, and review my calendar for calls and meetings for that day. Our CEO would arrive some 30 minutes later with his coffee from Au Bon Pain, and we would discuss outcomes from the day before, and mutual priorities for the bank facing us. We would engage with various stakeholders, and revisit at the end of the day to discuss the significant events we experienced.

Today, millions of people wake up without jobs. Some have been given limited severance, many others none. Some are furloughed and retain their health insurance, but most have none. And, perhaps most frightening of all – there is no end to this crisis in sight.

For the more fortunate who have retained their jobs, most are sheltered-in-place. Every day feels like Groundhog Day. The kids are distance learning, feel a diminished sense of parental attention, and a disconnect from their peers. They spend their spare time torturing one another. Tension between spouses rise, often dramatically.

For everyone, there is a deep anxiety, indeed terror, at the loss of a predictable future.

Anything that resembled a routine is gone. “Business-as-usual” no longer exists, and is unlikely to ever return. The starting point for leaders is to acknowledge the brutal truths that everyone is experiencing. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today, and into the future.  Trust, real trust, demands truth – they are two sides of the same coin. Leaders cannot spin the truth. In an age of transparency, everyone knows what’s going on.

Given that we are all shuttered-in-place, there has been a profound loss of touch. Michael Osterholm, MD, a world-renowned infectious disease expert, favors the term “physical distance” versus social distance. This is particularly important for leaders, who need to be on the front line, fully engaged with all stakeholders. While required to be physically distant, they cannot afford to be socially distant. 

The life-threatening novel coronavirus, combined with a global economic collapse, pose formidable existential questions for leaders.  We are in the midst of a complete and global disruption, i.e. “a break in the normal course of activities” according to Merriam-Webster. In this era, leaders everywhere will be judged more for who they are, and the values that they represent, than for what they do.

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

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