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National Capital Chapter

COVID-19 Leadership Lesson: Essential Leaders Infect Us All

By Oshawn Jefferson
Senior Instructor, Lewis-Price & Associates Defense Information School

“If history repeats itself, it’s only because human nature stays relatively constant,”
Noah Y. Kim in The Atlantic, March 31, 2020

It’s been more than 100 years since America has faced an unrelenting contagion. The last pandemic was first identified in the spring 1918. The vicious executioner killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and with an estimated global murder rate of 50 million people.

The 1918 pandemic, unlike the current COVID-19 global pandemic, didn’t have social media; however, it had the same ebbs and flows.

“Reading through newspaper articles and diaries written during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I felt an eerie flash of recognition. The dark jokes, anxious gossip, and breathless speculation reminded me of scrolling through Twitter over the past few weeks, watching people wrestle with life under quarantine by memeing through the crisis. Despite many similarities to the present moment, lockdown in 1918 was nevertheless a much lonelier experience than it is today.

Lacking the many communication technologies that have allowed us to stay in contact with friends and family, early-20th-century Americans also struggled with the sudden loss of strong community ties, an experience that, to many, even outweighed the fear of a deadly and contagious disease,” wrote Kim.

Also similar in 1918, was mistrust in leaders and neighbors. Feelings of loneliness during the pandemic were worsened by fear and mistrust, particularly in places where officials tried to hide the truth of the influenza from the public, according to John M. Barry, the author of The Great Influenza. In his book, Barry details reports of families starving to death because other people were too scared to bring them food.

“Society is largely based on trust when you get right down to it, and without that there’s an alienation that works its way through the fabric of society,” he said. “When you had nobody to turn to, you had only yourself.”

As more than 310,000 million Americans hunker down under coronavirus lockdown orders. Technology may help save more lives than were lost in 1918; however, we are not immune to the devastation of more than 400,000 Americans infected and another 13,000 and counting succumbing to this invisible killer.

Much like the leaders of a century ago, contemporary leaders find themselves in a precarious position.  How do you lead during the chaos? How do you maintain trust and credibility when you can’t control or influence the outcome? Most importantly how do you balance optimism and positivity with reality?

Here are a few leadership lessons to apply during this moment of crisis.

1.  Trust and Credibility

Trust and credibility are a part of an infinite game. Over the lifetime of any leader they are earned and lost on a daily basis. Trust is built over time by following through on the promises you make. As people look for answers in this time, letting people know what your plan is clearly and concisely is imperative. More importantly is following through on that plan in a speed to match the desperation of needs is a must. Follow through and making people feel the optimism of safety and security in this uneasy time is key to building and maintaining trust.

Credibility, the quality or power of inspiring belief, should follow a pattern of character and competence. As Stephen M.R. Covey wrote in his book The Speed of Trust, character and competence are the foundation of the four cores of credibility. The cores are integrity, intent, capabilities, and results. Each of the cores feed into credibility and work to build trust in meaningful ways. In this time character and competence matter. People need this kind of strong leadership in this difficult time.

Fore more information about building trust and confidence check out this video from Logos Institute of Crisis Management and Executive Leadership.

2.  Communication Based Leadership

Dr. Cliff W. Gilmore, CEO of North of Center, LLC, says there are six essential questions Communication-Based Leaders should ask (and answer) before they engage:

  1. What is the Driving Issue? (What am I talking about?)
  2. Who are my Key Publics? (With whom am I talking?)
  3. Why am I engaging? (What is my desired outcome?)
  4. How will I engage?
  5. When will I engage?
  6. Where will I engage?

Asking these tough questions in this time and dealing with reality is key. It’s okay to be wrong. Leaders must think beyond trying to look like they know what they are doing. No one in more than 100 years has had to face a pandemic like this. When answering these questions leaders must be honest but first with themselves.

For more information checkout the Enduring Truths of Communication Based Leadership.

3.  Best traits of Leadership during COVID-19 (Accountability, Transparency, Self-Awareness, Empathy, Vulnerability, Loyalty)

No amount of education and experience can get you ready for the unknown. The coronavirus situation is revealing our collective character. While people buying too much toilet paper get most of the headline, leaders exhibiting these seven leadership traits will be the heroes of this moment in time.

Accountability – Many decisions are being made right now and emotions are high. Accountability means owning your mistakes and doing the right thing period. Understand that this situation is unprecedented. Being accountable will go a long way to maintaining a leader’s trust and credibility post mortem.

Transparency – “I got this!” is the wrong answer right now. As a leader you need all the insight you can get. All ideas should be welcome. No one has been in this situation before, well maybe some centurions the U.N. estimates there are 533,000 worldwide. Short of having one of these people allow a diverse group of people to give sound advice and counsel in this situation. The more people see. The more reasonable the expectations.

Self-Awareness – Seeing yourself objectively through reflection and introspection is tough, but necessary. Self-evaluation allows leaders to give some thought about what they are thinking and acting and feeling as a leader should or if leaders are following their standards and values.

Empathy – Covid-19 is collective trauma. As Fred Rogers once said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond.” He added he considers those people his heroes. Be empathetic heroes in this moment.

Vulnerability – Everyone is affected and effected by this COVID-19 moment. This temporary new normal is true for everyone including the leader. Leaders just happen to have a position of leadership, but we are all feeling the pain of this moment. Make sure you embrace the “we” of this situation.

Loyalty – People are losing jobs and loved ones at an alarming rate. Remain committed to the people who have always been there for you. This moment will make us reassess what we call essential and nonessential. For the record no person is nonessential, being loyal to those people who have been put on the shelves as “nice to haves” in time is going to go a long way to solidifying trust and credibility postmortem of this event.

For more information about a master lesson in emotional intelligence checkout this article from The Inc.

4.  Human

 We can study the thoughts of mankind or become the thought that mankind studies. When this COVID-19 event ends people will look closely, and they will ask what you did for others. Being a human in this moment means you put the needs of others before you. Starting with the family inside of your home, spreading out to your neighbors and coworkers and spreading out into your local and global community.

Through it all we will watch leaders have happy accidents that happen to work out, well- intended mistakes that have long lasting effects and new ways of thinking we never considered before. This is the most unique leadership opportunity of our lifetime. As leaders and followers, we need to be allowed to make mistakes, live with decisions but at the end of the day remember we are all in this together. As humans we will make it through this, lead well.

For more information about this. Well a mirror and a notebook will do.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Lewis-Price & Associates, Defense Information School or the U.S. Government


About the Author

Oshawn Jefferson is an instructor and researcher with the advanced studies team at DINFOS. He was formally the communication education manager for the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Leadership Communication at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL. He has taught more than 10,000 students during his time at AU and DINFOS.