CEO as Chief Empathy Officer

As I wrote about in The Big Reset, the global pandemic is changing many things. One of them is the way we evaluate leadership.

Now, as in any crisis, we live in the fog of war. Is the virus getting worse or better? Will it be gone in a few weeks, or a few years? Will I have no symptoms, or could it kill me?

These are unanswerable questions, yet we still have to make decisions. And how we make decisions teaches us a lot about leadership.

Social Distancing, Yet More Connected Than Ever

We are fighting a war against an enemy with no conscience. It’s barely a living thing – it’s a fragment of DNA and it does whatever it wants. We can’t see it and we can barely detect it. Yet it does irreparable harm to many and threatens our relationships with everyone.

Social distancing, the only remedy we have, takes us away from those we love. Yet as we continue in our war against this enemy, we feel more connected than ever.

I watched the heartbreaking stories of Italians fighting the disease, the hospitals full and families losing their loved ones. Despite one of the most frightening situations in the world, Italians decided to start singing, and they came together outside their windows. They’re coming together to fight the war.

Watch Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, Justin Trudeau, Lee Hsien Loong (PM of Singapore), and business leaders like Marc Benioff (who pledges “no-layoffs”) and Bill McDermott (building real-time support apps for COVID-19). They show a level of compassion and care above all. This crisis, as in any crisis, is about people first, economics second. And that’s the lesson we learn.

For business leaders, we’re in a new world. Today’s CEO is the Chief Empathy Officer above all.

What are we learning about leadership in crisis? A lot.

As I discussed in The Big Reset, there are five lessons to learn here.

First, leaders in a crisis focus on empathy and compassion first, business second.” If you believe, as I do, in the unlimited potential of the human spirit, you understand that only by making people safe will we ever grow out of this crisis. Giving people money will help, but jawboning the stock market won’t matter. When people feel a sense of safety, trust and empowerment, growth will return.

Second leaders in crisis focus on truth. They tell us what’s really going on. Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom are honest. The Trump administration feels like they’re “wishing for a solution.” This is a real crisis, and we all feel it. Strong leaders give us the truth “as it is,” not “as we want it to be.” Jack Welch taught us this when he said: “great leaders deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be.”

Third, strong leaders focus on competence. They know that “messages without results don’t matter.” They focus on results, accountability, and competency. They empower experts; they put great leaders in charge. As much as we may have fumbled the 9/11 and Katrina response, our political leaders empowered the military to take charge. Why? Because they know how to mobilize, empower, and execute. In a world where trust is everything, we want experts showing us the way.

Fourth, strong leaders listen well. They open their ears. They talk less, listen more. Why? Because the real action is at the front lines. The healthcare workers, the sales teams, the service teams – they know what’s going on. If we don’t listen to them, we can’t possibly make the right decisions. Right now every individual with a story has an important message. CEOs need to ask their HR, finance, and IT leaders to “listen to everyone.”

Fifth, today’s leaders build trust. They embrace digital disruption. They let employees work at home. They empower managers to make decisions. They create rules, norms, and accountability – and then they empower us to act. We trust them because we know they have our backs. 

In this crisis, we have to try a lot of new things. Working at home. Bringing teachers online. Letting people find new tools. Great leaders trust us to innovate, knowing that some ideas will work, some may fail.

This crisis gives CEOs and CHROs the opportunity to show their leadership. It reinforces a new model. It reminds us that above all, business is all about people. Without a feeling of truth, trust, and power, people can’t perform. With these things, people will bring us out of this crisis.

Above all, this Virus is giving us a gift. An important lesson in leadership. We are all connected, and without these five lessons in leadership, we feel adrift.