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Leading From Afar: Three Leadership Principles Emerging from COVID-19


Sean Follin

Date Published

Apr 02, 2020
5 minute read

As our world continues to grapple with what’s happening around us, everyone, including leaders, struggle to keep up with rapidly evolving conditions. At The Clearing, we have the pleasure of working with leaders across the public and private sectors. As organizations adjust to operating in virtual environments, three leadership principles emerge as reminders of how you can impact and lead your teams and organizations through uncertainty.

Details, Details, Details

Think about great military leaders of the past. Napoleon didn’t have the communication methods we have today, but he still managed to lead many successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary War. Napoleon wrote about this limitation often, notably, “The secret of war lies in the communications.”  When Napoleon wrote orders to his generals, he was meticulous in the detail he provided. He also spent a good portion of his missives describing the “why” behind his commands. Napoleon knew that once a general set out from camps, his chances of getting back in communication with them were slim to none, so he had to communicate his thinking, along with the task, to each in detail.

While we’re not fighting a war, leaders can take a note from Napoleon’s playbook by providing more detail than we’re used to. Communicating the context of our requests is more critical today as we work with teams to navigate a drastically shifting virtual environment. Unlike Napoleon, we do have the ability to contact our colleagues and staff easily via chat, text, email, etc., but without the luxury of walking down the hall, we must be more intentional and explicit with requests and commands and leave room for grace when our colleagues ask for more.

Establish a “Bat Signal” for Emergencies

With our closest team members no longer down the hall, it can be harder to convene a group in time of acute emergency. Those hallway meetings were great for urgent issues, small requests, or sharing a piece of information. What can we do now that everyone’s at home?

In Gotham City, when The Batphone rings or the Bat Signal shines bright, Bruce Wayne drops everything and makes for the Batcave — Gotham needs him. Likewise, for organizations, you too can set up a Bat Signal. A Bat Signal is a simple agreement with your team that establishes an emergency response protocol. When this text/email/call is received, know the team needs to convene, now. Bat Signals are not reserved for the CEO; anyone on the team can throw up the signal. Ensure the team establishes a common understanding of the types of situations that warrant a Bat Signal and hold the team to those protocols.

Balancing Short-term Tactics With Long-term Implications 

In the heat of the moment, as we address pressing matters during a crisis, it’s easy to move from one fire to the next. What a group of emergency response managers realized in a recent strategy session is that, after hundreds of incident responses and thousands of hours spent in the field, holding only the short-term “firefighting” perspective made for huge complications later on, once the crisis subsided.

In times of crisis, leaders must balance short-term firefighting measures with long-term planning. While we tackle urgent threats and shifts, we need to take a few moments to consider the longer-term impact of these decisions. Don’t let current passing circumstances fool us into thinking we must respond a certain way. At the end of a crisis, we want to ensure our organization is not worse off in the long run because of short term measures. Shane Parrish has an excellent piece on what he calls, “Second Order and Third Order Thinking.” As the adage goes,“today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.” This still holds true even in times of extreme change.