By: James Houran, Ph.D., Dallas | Keith Kefgen, New York
The COVID-19 pandemic has now become the most disruptive event in our lifetime. Understandably, virtually all organizations are bogged down in “immediate” decision-making. It is all tactical right now, because there is no place to run and no place to hide; there is no safe haven. But once the immediate circumstances settle, will your organization be hard-wired for panic or innovation?
This pandemic offers two critical lessons for leadership thinking. First, psychologists have often emphasized mindfulness to a purpose. Living in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally as an approach to living. But the current crisis also underscores the tremendous risks of thinking and acting in short-sighted and counterproductive ways when focused exclusively on the present. Instead, leaders must strive to be mindful of the big picture. This is not only smart; it is an approach that works with our natural hard-wiring for problem-solving and decision-making. Simply put, the human brain inherently acts as an “engine of prediction” that is naturally future-oriented.
Indeed, considerable neuroscientific research indicates that the brain continually generates hypotheses and simulates models of the world to anticipate action and events and to minimize prediction errors to promote cognitive, neural, and generally adaptive functioning in daily life. Thus, the coronavirus pandemic can be recognized as a valuable case study in the power and need for proactive, resourceful, and solution-oriented thinking in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This is not the first time we have faced an occurrence of large-scale panic – e.g., recall other disruptive events such as the advent of the internet, Y2K, the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the great recession and other outbreaks like SARS, MERS and Ebola.
We anticipate that leaders who manage this crisis most effectively are those that can think and act organizationally and with an agility that maintains a futurist perspective. This view suggests that the best solutions address immediate challenges, while simultaneously identifying learning to apply to future challenges. Thus, the concept of simply “reacting” in the moment transforms to strategic “prospecting.” This view also follows the findings of a recent study by AETHOS Consulting Group and the Cornell Hotel School that identified the traits and tendencies of high performers in fast-paced and service-oriented environments. In the context of the pandemic, this success profile can also describe the most productive and resilient workers who have the flexibility to succeed in various environments, such as working from home with maximum accountability and minimum oversight.
The second lesson is the importance of rethinking or reinventing during times of great change. Leadership performance will be judged on the ability to morph crisis into opportunity. These leaders will exhibit the success profile called “CHAT” and is built on a long-standing principle in organizational psychology known as “contextual performance,” or what might be considered the ultimate transferrable skill set. Contextual performance reflects a broader set of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are relevant across a wide array of jobs and work settings. These relate to Conscientiousness to needs and tasks, Hospitable attitude internal and external to an organization, Adaptability to changes in business conditions, and Trainability to learn and apply new information.
We argue that this success profile likely applies at the enterprise-level and characterizes organizations with the strongest “agility” in the face of crisis ― that is, those businesses that do not merely react in the present moment but develop approaches to immediate challenges that leverage a strategic or futurist perspective. Disruptive events like the coronavirus pandemic offer entrepreneurs, leaders, and operators the opportunity to diagnose the state and strength of their organizational agility and future focus. Not all will, but then again that can be a competitive advantage in the business jungle where it remains survival of the fittest, or should we say, agile in the present to remain resilient in the future.