Recently, I have witnessed many leaders facing a decision point. They can’t go back to the way things were before, but the path forward is unmarked and feels at times uncertain. The opportunity to observe leaders as they navigate these uncharted waters has given me a unique perspective on how leaders must show up today, and in the coming months, as our world continues to adapt and evolve.
On June 18th, 1940, at the beginning of World War II, Winston Churchill delivered a famous speech to the House of Commons of the UK. In the face of the threat of Nazism, he encouraged any person in power to stand up for what is good. He ended his 36-minute speech with the following words:
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us … or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, … the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world … will sink into the abyss of a new dark age … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that … for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Just like World War II, the current pandemic is a radical test of our humanity and a time when leaders can create impact and inspiration that will last for decades. It can be an inflection point for corporate and government leaders after which people will look back and say, “This was their finest hour.” But this doesn’t happen on its own, and it all starts with you.
In crisis, our best and our worst sides come out
A crisis puts leaders’ humanness to the test. It brings out the best and the worst in us. The best emerges when we are faced with other people’s suffering. Because human beings are intrinsically good, we are compelled to exhibit compassion and care for others. The worst comes out when we don’t manage our ego’s natural drive for self-preservation. When the ego takes over, we are driven by fear of losing fame, fortune or influence and often make decisions that are narrowly focused on our own gain. When this happens, our actions can be cold-hearted and devastating for others. In a crisis, great leaders stand apart from the rest with their capacity for compassion over indifference, and selflessness over egoism.
Compassion and selflessness sets good leaders apart
One now infamous example of poor leadership in the current crisis comes from Bird, the electric scooter company. On April 3rd, the $2.77 billion company laid off approximately 400 people through a 2-minute Zoom call. According to those on the call, everything was handled poorly. Impacted employees were invited to a call with no agenda; there was no opportunity for interaction or questions; and the person announcing the lay-off’s was not known. As the call ended, the computers of the terminated coworkers abruptly shut down, and they were remotely locked out of the company’s systems.
Unfortunately, lay-off’s can be a necessity in times of crisis, as it may be the only way of saving other people’s jobs. When this becomes the only option, you have the opportunity to let employees go with great compassion, care and gratitude.
The Bird story stands in stark contrast to the many inspiring stories of exemplary leadership which have emerged in recent months. One of these inspirations is Target, who saw revenue increasing and immediately reinvested those profits. Target leaders spent more than $300 million in new initiatives to compensate and thank their team members, including temporarily raising employees’ hourly pay by two dollars, offering new paid leave options, paying out bonuses to 20,000 hourly workers, and donating $10 million to COVID-19 relief efforts.
Target CEO Brian Cornell shared in a press release: “I am proud and humbled by the dedication and humanity our coworkers show to our guests every day. Increasing their compensation for a job incredibly well done and ensuring continued compensation for those who need to care for themselves and their families is a reflection of our company’s values and simply the right thing to do.”
Brian Cornell’s words and actions at this time will likely be remembered for decades, perhaps cementing this moment as his finest hour.
Right now, your legacy is being shaped
For you as a leader, this crisis offers a rare chance to clearly define and exemplify who you are and what you stand for. Because of the gravity of the pandemic and its enormous impact on millions of people, your actions, good or bad, are amplified at every turn. Kind and unkind actions, however small, will be magnified. It is likely that the next few months will define what people will remember about you and your leadership.
As you shape the nature and tone of your legacy, ask yourself a few simple questions every time you have a decision to make:
- Will this have a positive impact on my co-workers’ genuine happiness and well-being?
- Will this have a positive impact on society?
- Will this action inspire other leaders in a positive way?
- Will I be proud of this in 10 years?
Let compassion and selflessness be your guide now and your future legacy will take root in fertile soil. Be human now and your finest hour awaits.