7 Leadership Fundamentals For Surviving Coronavirus

By: Brent Gleeson, Founder & CEO at TakingPoint™ Leadership, Navy SEAL

As a former Navy SEAL, I’ve been far removed from the battlefield for quite some time. But there continue to be many lessons we can extract from the global war on terrorism when it comes to preparedness, planning, vigilance, resilience and leading through constant change during tumultuous times. 

On various combat deployments in the past, when the operational tempo was extreme, we still debriefed every mission and applied lessons learned to adapt our strategy and tactics. That could mean a formally scheduled meeting or a down-and-dirty discussion in a helo on our way to the next target.

Throughout an entire career as a SEAL, you never stop training. Preparedness is a number one priority. And as the Navy SEAL Ethos states, “My training is never complete.” It’s a high-performance mindset developed out of necessity. Never assuming you know enough and being a life-long learner is critical for leading though change. We develop training scenarios that can be vastly more complex and stressful than a real-world mission because we know, even after two decades of war, new obstacles will always arise. One of the first things you learn is to stay calm under pressure. Because calm is contagious.

As we all “jock up” and prepare to step onto this uncertain battlefield (virtually for now), let’s not forget the fundamental leadership traits required for successfully navigating any dynamic environment. Clearly, the main emphasis is and should be on containing and mitigating the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). But as we continue to see, the economic impacts could also be significant. Many companies are forging their path towards understanding, reacting to, and learning lessons from rapidly unfolding events. Unanticipated twists and turns will be revealed with each news cycle - and we will only have a complete picture in retrospect.

Nevertheless, given the very different degrees of preparedness across companies (especially the almost 30 million small businesses in the US) and the further potential for disruption, it’s worth trying to extract what we have learned thus far and apply that knowledge to current and future planning.

Leaders who persevere and thrive in adversity exhibit what I call the 4 C’s of Change Leadership: Calm, Confident, Consistent, Credible. Our firm’s decades of combined experience building high-growth companies, transforming organizations around the world and deep insight from our subject matter experts has resulted in the development of leadership practices for operating in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments.

Stay calm, focus on what is in your immediate control, engage the team, innovate and keep moving forward. Here are seven fundamental leadership imperatives for surviving (and maybe even thriving) amidst adversity.

1.    Consider adjustments in near-term tactics and long-term strategy. Shift fire and continue the assault. On my first tour to Iraq in 2003, we used the tactics we were taught when it came to close quarters combat in urban environments. But we quickly realized those tactics needed to evolve, as did our long-term strategy. The old way of doing things simply wouldn’t work. So, we applied lessons learned in real-time and adapted on the fly. The same applies during the unforeseen challenges we face today. But don’t make these adjustments in a vacuum. Involve everyone. Gain buy-in and execute.

2.    Build trust by demanding accountability. This starts with you, regardless of rank or tenure. Accountability is the most important culture pillar for any high-performing organization and never more important in complex environments. As you lead your business through these uncertain times, ensure you have the appropriate accountability mechanisms in place that not only apply to existing initiatives, but the new plans you develop. Remember, accountability starts at the top and it’s the only behavior that truly drives results.

3.    Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Don’t underestimate the value of a tactical pause. As we say in the SEAL teams, “Don’t run to your death.” One of our battlefield mantras is speed, surprise and violence of action. But as we continued to apply lessons learned, we evolved. We slowed things down. A tactical pause can mean the difference between life and death. As a leader, its important to apply the fine art of thinking both slow and fast at the same time. Knee-jerk decision-making can lead to mission failure. The first step in any mission plan after a clear, concise and measurable objective is defined is to list resources. That includes resources you currently have at your disposal and those you need to acquire. Rally the troops and take stock of the resource needs that will keep your team in the fight.

4.    Prepare for tomorrow today. Preparation is the bedrock of resilience. We have more resources for managing remote workforces and communicating with clients than ever before. Now is the time to increase the rhythm of communication, not decrease it. Keep teams collaborating by embracing technology. Increase the frequency of virtual meetings if needed. But still maintain meeting discipline by ensuring everyone comes prepared, the meeting starts and ends on time and everyone has marching orders to execute. Add “innovation discussion” to the meeting agenda so the team can start planning for tomorrow today.

5.    Fall back to contingencies. Don’t have any for global pandemics? That’s ok. When ideating new plans for navigating uncharted waters, new contingencies will be imperative. Once new objectives, resources and blockages have been defined. Apply any existing lessons learned to list contingencies. Contingency plans require identifying the environmental trigger (i.e. coronavirus), the associated action (with the Who, What and When) and accountabilities. In combat, your contingency plans often simply become the new plan. This currently reality may prove no different.

6.    Apply organizational resilience principles. Get ready to survive and bounce back. Organizational resilience is the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper. It reaches beyond risk management towards a more holistic view of business health and success. A resilient organization is one that not merely survives over the long term, but also flourishes - passing the test of time. But the current situation requires a vastly more creative approach to maintaining resilience and engagement. We recommend assigning a culture committee to generate and manage new and fun ways to keep the team from experience battle fatigue, fear and good old fashion boredom. Games, video competitions, virtual lunch meetings, innovation labs and more. Get on it!

7.    Debrief and apply lessons learned. Plan, execute, debrief. Rinse and repeat. To maintain execution momentum, start performing better AARs (after-action reviews). Debriefing as we go will be critical to adapting on this new battlefield. Integrate a stop-start-continue methodology into these debriefs. Ask these questions: What do we need to stop doing immediately to stay the course and maintain business continuity? What do we need to start doing that’s been on the side-burner? What new ideas can we implement to better serve our customers? What do we do best that we can not only continue doing, but enhance?

Stay the course. Lead through this change. Hold yourself and others accountable to execution. And as the Navy SEAL Ethos states: I am never out of the fight.

Gleeson is the founder and CEO of TakingPoint Leadership, former Navy SEAL, globally recognized speaker, award-winning entrepreneur and the bestselling author of TakingPoint. TakingPoint Leadership is a progressive consulting firm with a focus on leadership and organizational development, culture transformation and building high-performance teams. Learn more at www.TakingPointLeadership.com