CEOs: are you the biggest problem in managing this crisis?

“Leaders must recognise people’s grief and assist them in finding meaning,” writes David Kessler in the July-August 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review in an article titled “Helping Your Team Heal”.

By grief, he means “the loss of control, the radical change in how we were living, the anticipatory grief we felt as we imagined future job losses and possibly the death of loved ones”. He goes on to explain how leaders can use the five stages of grief, plus a sixth – meaning – to “take care of their workers”.

In the same HBR issue Kevin Sneader, the global managing partner at McKinsey, talks about choosing “candour over charisma”; Chuck Robbins, CEO at Cisco says that “…The culture of organisations, and their people, and how leaders show up during the moment – all of that will define who’s going to be successful in the future”.

Peter Scoblic, Principal, Event Horizon Strategies writes that “…at the very moment when the present least resembles the past, it makes little sense to look back in time for clues about the future”.

These insights are all helpful, especially Scoblic’s emphasis on “scenario planning…to anticipate possible futures while still operating in the present…to build a dynamic link between planning and operations”.

But I fear that the “emerging from the crisis” industry will result in leaders repeating the errors made during the 2008 Global Financial Crash after which they pathologised “their people” and introduced a raft of downwards focused “reforms” to “fix them” without pausing first to look at themselves in the “leadership mirror”.

The result, according to many surveys, was that little changed in terms of behaviour, especially in the financial services sector. It appears that everyone, except taxpayers and the lowest-paid workers, got away with it.

Not this time. This crisis is not the same as the Crash, which was caused by unchecked conduct. This crisis was caused by a virus which has changed the nature of the body politic.

So, as the CEO you can decide to focus entirely downwards – no one will stop you because you are the boss.

Or you can give yourself a year – yes, a full 12 months – of personal purpose, strategy and behaviour reflection, reframing and relaunch.

A year because you will need at least that amount of time to reflect, to take feedback in real-time to reframe your leadership and to relaunch yourself as a credible “cum-COVID19” leader with the humility, nous and emotional intelligence to make the tough calls and to manage relationships in a manner which will not send your organisation into an uncontrollable tailspin at worst or lead to missed opportunities at best.

I propose three steps:

Step 1: Review your personal purpose

  • How has the pandemic changed your personal purpose? 
  • If not, how can it not?
  • Are you somehow immune from the psychological impact of the pandemic because you are the boss?

Step 2: Reframe your personal strategy

  • Having decided on a new personal purpose, how will you achieve it?
  • What fresh approach will you use?
  • What leadership strategy got you to pre-COVID-19 and how can you change that strategy now, because you must?

Step 3: Relaunch your personal behaviour

  • How will you heighten your empathy, because your “people” need it?
  • How will you deepen your self-awareness, because you risk making irreparable mistakes if you don’t?
  • How will you negotiate your needs productively because people won’t give you the discretionary effort you desperately need if you “drive change” rather than lead it?

I have developed a one-year programme to assist CEOs, leaders and NEDs in avoiding being “the naked emperors” in their organisations, to prevent unforced errors and to emerge from the crisis feeling more fulfilled, reputationally enhanced and whole.

Please contact me at for further information.

Ciarán Fenton

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