I’ve been tracking how leaders have shifted their thinking and acting since the world was gut-punched by COVID-19. In doing this I realized that some of these insights could help others in their own work, so my next few posts will attempt to share these findings.

To say Tom is an ‘old-school’ kind of leader is an understatement. As COO of a growing financial services company, he is most comfortable giving orders and critiquing his team’s performance. With 20 years at the company, and having occupied numerous positions, he knows the firm’s key roles better than anyone else. Tom has firm ideas about how things need to get done and is not reserved about telling anyone.

Right before the virus sent our world into shock, Tom participated in an executive development program. At the outset, he shared with me some frustrations: he is spread too thin to focus on long term strategy; his team doesn’t speak up in meetings; he is always solving other peoples’ problems; and so on. He aspired to develop a high performing leadership team. I replied with a line from the book Extreme Ownership (2017: St. Martin’s Press), “There are no weak teams, only weak leaders.”  Tom didn’t look happy but didn’t argue the point.

During the program Tom received detailed feedback from his team and others through a 360-degree feedback instrument. Since I was the lead program instructor as well as Tom’s coach, I saw his feedback before he did. Negative comments piled up like a multiple car accident: “Our team meetings are like trials from the Spanish Inquisition;” “It’s impossible to change Tom’s mind;” “We benefit from Tom’s years of experience but he’s not open to change;” “When Tom walks into your office just to chat, it’s not a good sign,” and so forth. Tom told me somberly that he looked forward to our next session.

Coaching During Crisis

In our first COVID-19 era virtual coaching session, Tom conceded that he “didn’t want to be a dictator anymore.” So, I helped him isolate the times in which he acted overly controlling. He realized that it usually happened when progress was too slow, or when his team didn’t initiate solving problems themselves. My image of him emerged from the movie The Clash of the Titans, when Zeus directs his charges to “Release the Kraken!” Tom was both Zeus and the Kraken.

I gave Tom a homework assignment in anticipation of our next session: He was simply to pay more attention to his own reactions when he became exasperated. He wasn’t to change his behavior, just become more deeply aware of how he behaved when he got frustrated.

New Realizations During Crisis

In our second virtual session, I discovered how sheltering-at-home can actually provide leaders with new growth opportunities. Tom shared that it was impossible to perform the homework assignment. He said that when he saw his own face on the screen in videoconference team meetings, his expression was an immediate feedback mechanism. It allowed him to check his reactions, both verbally and non-verbally. By literally changing the channel from in-person to online meetings, Tom became more self-regulating, less reactive. He acknowledged that while he was still a ‘work-in-progress’ he was committed to becoming a more participative leader.

Tom said it also helped that he created more structure to their team meetings: When on line, it was easier for team members to take turns reporting the status of what they were working on. Tom was able to ask more thoughtful questions from the comfort of his home office. Everyone shared their next steps which were recorded and distributed. Though the meetings were shorter, the team was more engaged.

In our last session after a month sheltering-at-home, I asked what lessons he would take back to the office. Tom said that even though the crisis was terrible, it provided him with an opportunity to compare his leadership style under two totally different conditions, and he is looking forward to bringing his ‘virtual style’ into the real world.

Tom isn’t the only leader who has shifted how they think and act during the pandemic. If you or someone you know has experienced significant personal development as a leader through the crisis, please contact me at rgoldberg@orginsight.com I’d love to share the story.