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Two Years Later ... reflections on leading through COVID-19

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Why I care about leadership… reflections on leading through COVID-19

I remember the day, like most do, pretty clearly – March 13, 2020. Friday the 13th. The day the United States started shutting down because of COVID-19 – for what we thought might be a month. We had no idea.

I was on military duty at the time (then I was commanding an Air Force Reserve Unit and the Chief HR Officer for a public higher education organization). I was in California, preparing for a Reserve “drill” weekend. The vibe wasn’t its norm … there was this huge looming ambiguity about what COVID-19 was, my military boss was visiting (and while laid back – that’s still stress), and my military unit was halfway through a mobilization. I wish I had kept track of the order of the text messages…

· My husband – hey, hon – Utah just closed schools effective Monday.

· My civilian boss – Sara, what are we going to do with employees who have kids with the schools all shut down?

· My military team – ma’am – what are we going to do about drill this weekend, especially those that traveled in (I was one of those that had traveled in)

· My civilian team – Sara, how do we prepare to give guidance on Monday for something we have never done before?

Did I mention my mom was being treated for cancer, and I had been traveling back to her every three weeks for 3 months? Honestly, I had clear flashbacks to September 11, 2001, when I was a newly commissioned Air Force Lieutenant. What was going on? What were we going to do? What should we do RIGHT NOW? Who was going to guide us? In that situation, I had my squadron commander to look to for that guidance.

On March 13, 2020, I was that person (the one others were looking to for answers) in more ways than I had even realized. That afternoon, the teams and I gathered everything we could in terms of guidance. My military group talked about anyone traveling going home early, in case travel was shut down. I carefully thought about how to craft a message that was both calm and captured the urgency of the situation. We needed to take it seriously, and we didn’t want to scare people. I then went back to my hotel room and reached out to my civilian team – what guidance did we have available? What options do we have? What did we know? Then I sat down, watched the news and cried. Something told me that it was bigger than some were making it out to be.

Then, I talked to my family, and I sat down and thought about how I could use what I have learned to attempt to do my best to lead through it. I went back to what I wanted to lead my teams through a lens of care – I knew enough about each of them to know the challenges were going to be different and that no solution was going to be the perfect solution.

After commander’s call and checking in with my team, I headed home – to lead my military unit from another state for four months, to lead my local team mainly virtually, and to support my own family. My command was just over 2 years. I never saw my entire military unit again. I transitioned my civilian role. I never saw my entire team again in one place. I didn’t see my mother for almost 15 months.

The leadership teams I was on during the bulk of COVID-19 handled situations differently. Leaders across the country and globe handled it (are still handling it) differently. I won’t pretend we were perfect. We weren’t – but I know how intentionally we considered everything from – how do we invite people to tell us what they need, how do we prioritize the health and wellbeing of people and maintain military standards (we found a compromise), how do we support leaders whose natural tendency is not to lean in to care? So many questions, so many conversations, so many hours spent deeply considering things that normally would have been a quick decision. It reminded me deeply about why I care about leadership and leadership development.

Why I care about leadership and leadership development …

1) If a leader has not done work before a crisis, they will not show up their best for others when a crisis hits.

Zenger & Folkman (2009) wrote that on average only 10% of leaders are actively working on their development. As someone who has studied leadership and been an advocate for leadership development for many years, this number worries me. No leader is exempt from needing to be developing … and in some cases, it is the skills that were needed for the last two years are skills not every leader has actively developed. And it showed … it showed in what one person called “supervisor envy” or “leader envy.” It is showing up now in the “Great Resignation” or what I prefer to call the “Great Reprioritization.” People are leaving leaders.

2) No one is exempt from the need to develop their leadership skills

New leader, experienced leader, or in between, there is always more to be learning and developing related to leadership. I have heard a variety of reasons why people think they don’t need to be developing their leadership skills… every thing from “I’m not in a leadership role” to “I’m an old dog who doesn’t need to learn new tricks.” Whatever the excuse, if you are entrusted with the lives of people – I hope you are spending time developing yourself to earn that responsibility.

3) Leaders often have more of an impact than they realize

Research shows over and over again that leaders have an incredible impact on their teams. This impact can be positive, and the impact can be extremely damaging to individuals. (Did you know that for more than half of workers, their boss is their greatest stress and/or disruption at work? Ouch…) When you consider that your behavior and actions might be negatively impacting someone, doesn’t that inspire you to want to be better?

The last two years have been time for me personally of a lot of growth, reflection, and at times pure exhaustion … physical, mental, and emotional. I am grateful for those I led with – those who helped me to carefully consider the best way to engage our teams, to engage others, and to lean in to compassion continually in a time of leadership and life struggle for so many.

As I pause to honor all that so many have gone through – individually and collectively – I am reminded and remain committed to elevating leadership. Every day. One person. One question. One interaction at a time.

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