It’s been a year, like no other, I think we can all agree. It’s a year, almost exactly, since the first case of the virus was detected on the shores of Ireland. And it’s a year almost exactly since I volunteered into self isolation and spent two weeks thinking, “what do I do now?”, and decided to record a podcast to try to consolidate almost a quarter century of experience working with leaders in organizations manage through change into something that might add value in a chaos that nobody understood and we’re very slowly beginning to understand.

This is an effort, in this episode and the sequence of three subsequent episodes, to commemorate a year in the trenches. To zoom out, as we referred to in a previous episode, and to try to look back so that we can consolidate and look forward. A summary of the principles and highlights that might help us continue to navigate from where we are now to wherever it is we aspire to be in the future.

The last such disruption we felt at the scale was during the financial crash almost 12 years ago. And if there’s one thing that the last year has taught us as it did back then, it is that whilst leadership is a sort of a luxury in normal times, in abnormal times it becomes a critical necessity. This was brought to bear very clearly in an article that was written by professor Jack Lambert, who is professor of infectious diseases in UCD. And he wrote an article, an Op ed for the Irish Times where he indicated 10 things we needed to do to help us to navigate our way through the virus and keep the pandemic at bay.

Amongst the 10, number 4 on the list was predictably enough, the use of masks. But the number 1 thing that he wrote on the list, as a man of science, as an epidemiologist, was the need for strong and decisive leadership and accountability.

And how our experience has borne that out in the last 12 months. I’d like to share with you an excerpt from another article that I came across recently, which goes as follows. For some organization near term survival is the only agenda item. Other organizations are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, what will normal look like? While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years. There’s nothing unusual at all in that excerpt, except the realization that that is an extract from a piece written by the managing partner of McKinsey’s at the peak of the financial crisis in 2009.

The truth of it is the parallels between then and now are absolute. Not in terms of the specifics and the casualties and the health elements that are unique to this crisis, but in terms of the impact and implications that it’s had on leaders.

The most startling thing about the financial crisis, as I remember it, looking at it through our professional lens from the outside, was that it brought about the best of behaviors in terms of leadership, but also the worst of behaviors in terms of leadership. And this chaos pandemic is proving no different. So at this point in the evolution of the chaos and the pandemic this time round, I would like to share with you through the next few episodes, two reassurances and five principles on how to be as a leader, as we navigate our way through chaos.

The first reassurance has got to do with change. You know, there’s this idea abroad that people fear change. Well, actually, when you think about life, life is all about change. In fact, change is the most natural order of things. Nothing stays the same. The seasons change. The tides change. Night follows day. Every cell in our body reinvents and re-engineers itself and replaces itself every seven years. Our businesses change. Our relationships change. In fact, the only certainty about life is change. Nothing stays the same.

The only thing we need to understand is the psychological response that we have to things that are changing around us. And the good news about that is that it’s predictable because it’s a cycle. And if you imagine it as a series of rooms where you move from room to room, if we go back to this time last year, we were in a beautiful situation of the Contentment Room. Things were just as they were. And all of a sudden we fall through an instant trap door, which brings us unceremoniously into the second room, which is the room of denial where we can’t believe it’s happened. We think it’s going to end. We think it’s all a bad dream. In fact, some people have never left the Denial Room.

The COVID deniers are out there in abundance and the conspiracy theorists making up their stories to justify staying in the room of denial. Most people, however, moved swiftly into the Chaos Room. And the Chaos Room, we know we’re there because it’s characterized by a few things. The main characteristic of the Chaos Room is confusion, where there are more questions than answers.

The chaos room is somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. It’s the twilight. It’s neither light nor dark. And it’s certainly feels like the Twilight Zone. The one thing we know in the Chaos Room is that the old world, as we knew it is not returning in its original form with all its comforts, conveniences, and certainties. And the new world. Well, nobody yet knows what the new world order is really going to look like.

The good news is that this place is designed to be uncomfortable. And that’s where it is. So the natural order as we progress is this is the time of discomfort. This is a time where it’s okay not to feel okay. In fact that’s where you should be. So we’re exactly, precisely where we should be. To use the CrossFit slogan, it’s time to get comfortable with uncomfortable.

The second reassurance is slightly different. One of the early articles that I read at the start of the pandemic was an article from Laura Marlowe in the Irish Times also, which said, as a war correspondent, she’d been covering Wars for over 30 years. And she said that the one thing that she’s learned about wars is that wars always end. And this too will end.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Olympics, the Tokyo Olympics next year, as they were postponed from this year. And if we go back to the last Olympics in Rio in 2016, one of the hallmarks or features of the Rio Olympics, was that there were more personal bests recorded than at any other previous Olympics, but at the same time, there were more personal worsts recorded.

There was something about the challenge of the Olympics uniquely, which brings out the best on the worst in performance. Well, this pandemic has been like the leadership Olympics. Because what you’ve seen, through the last year, undoubtedly, is you’ve seen a double-down version of the real person. Because there’s something about the current climate, the chaos that it brings, that brings out the best and the worst in people, leaders, family, team members, neighbors. We’ve certainly seen sides of people that we never imagined through this chaos for better and for worse. And the question that I have for you at this point, as you navigate and move forward as a leader, is how are people saying that you’ve showed up during this time when times are at their worst? How have you been? Have you been at your best or have you been at your worst? And how have you managed that throughout the last 12 months? And how will you continue to manage it as you go forward? Because, during the last financial crash, where we saw the best and worst of leadership behaviours, reputations were both built and broken.

There were those who won gold medals and those who got the wooden spoon. And the only difference between this and the Rio Olympics for athletes is that at least in Rio, the athletes had four years to prepare. So as you move forward, people aren’t judging you by your good intentions, because nobody intends to be a bad leader.

People don’t judge you on your intentions, they judge you on your impact. How are you showing up for people at a time when they’re most in need? Have you shown up in a way that is worthy of a gold medal?
In part two, I’m going to describe what it means to be at your best and how, as a leader, you need to be mindful of what people are going through so that you can show up for them in ways that enables them to be at their best.

See you in part two.

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