We are all leaders now.

As corporate leaders, we are all accustomed to operating with our set business strategy and making tactical and resourcing decisions tied to that guiding strategy.  But, as Bill stated in his public service channel announcement, “what was important last week seems completely irrelevant today.” Post 141. How relevant is our guiding strategy today, and how about tomorrow?  How do we make good decisions without a strategy or framework against which to test them?  How do we lead effectively?  Activity is different from action, and we need the latter.

As many people in the world did last Friday night, I spent the evening with my husband on calls with family.  Specifically, my brother-in-law, Geoff Gillespie, a U.S. Navy JAG Corps lawyer with our forward deployed Naval forces in Naples, Italy.

Geoff Gillespie

Geoff has been calling us and other family for weeks, painting the grim picture of what was and is coming to us in the U.S. and advising that we prepare and isolate.  (We’ve self-quarantined for two weeks now.)  On this call, however, I realized that through his experience and training, I had much to glean from Geoff on the business front, as well.  He is in the service of making strategic and difficult decisions amidst crisis and chaos.

How? I asked.

In this article, Geoff shares battle-tested frameworks and thoughts on how to make effective decisions in the current environment with Anusia translating a bit for the private sector.

Make a Plan, Communicate, Execute…Repeat

Everybody’s a leader now.  Against the steep curve of the coronavirus pandemic, each of our actions will have an outsized impact on our organizations and communities.  Legal leaders’ analytical thinking and communication skills can be tremendous assets to manage stress and combat uncertainty.  It’s time to accept our new reality, and move into action.  Here are a few thoughts to help get started.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

I. Make a plan

Under sudden, intense stress, it’s natural to freeze up.  Plans (and training) give us a way to get moving.  Consider starting with a risk analysis, which can be done quickly, to help orient where to focus precious time and resources.

The military assesses operational risk by comparing each hazard’s probability and predicted severity.  Probability plus severity equals risk–hardly a unique concept, but it’s effective and battle-tested.  Military planners use several categories of severity, from “catastrophic” to “negligible”, and several categories of probability, from “certain” to “unlikely.”  Determining where a hazard falls on each scale can be plotted on a grid to illustrate level of risk.  This provides a basis to determine how to mitigate risk, and then whether to accept remaining risk and proceed with the mission.

The Risk Assessment Matrix can be simplified to your consultant’s standard 2×2 to get started quickly and review how much risk the pandemic presents to your operations.

To apply this matrix, follow these four steps:

  1. Focus on what’s in front of you, both pre and post COVID-19.  What are the concrete services, projects, and deliverables with milestones in the next few months?  Stick to items within your control.
  2. Assess the current risk of each “mission” using the above matrix.
  3. Prioritize your thinking so the highest risk missions are addressed first.
  4. Mitigate.  Before deciding what actions to take, consider what you can do to mitigate impact and probability.

These tools have been effective for me, even in highly dynamic situations.  For example, years ago, about halfway between Bagram and Kabul, our truck just quit running. Obviously, that was an unexpected, high-risk hazard.  This was risk mitigation in a sudden crisis.  The main hazard was a possible suicide car bomb.  That was low probability, but high impact, and we needed to mitigate it by securing the area, and getting out of there ASAP.  Leadership would be key to getting it done smoothly.

II. Communicate

“No man ever listened himself out of a job” — Calvin Coolidge

Inevitably, some will think you’re doing too much, incurring too much cost.  Others will think you’re doing too little, incurring too much risk.  How do you get people on board?

 Simply ordering people is unlikely to be effective, and will further degrade already-stressed morale.  Instead, include in the process those who are impacted — what Joel Brockner of Columbia Business School coined “process fairness.” See “Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair,” Harv Bus Rev (Mar 2006).

According to Brocker, an employee decides for themself whether a decision process is fair.  There are three (always three) drivers of process fairness:

A. How much input employees have

 Listening will improve your plan, improve outcomes, and increase support for your way ahead.  With everyone teleworking — how can you get this done?  Whatever combination you have of emails, calls, videoconferencing, and other collaboration tools — e.g. HighQ, virtual reality — use them often, and always at decision-making inflection points.

B. How employees believe decisions are made and implemented

In a crisis, it is difficult to gauge information accuracy, especially in a rapidly evolving situation. How can you ensure consistency of perceived decision-making in that dynamic of an environment?

Don’t be the reason for whiplash.   What’s your critical objective?  State it, and tie communications to it.  When things change, explain what’s new, and tie explanations to your critical objective.  Be sure to give as much notice as you can.

If your time is overtaxed, find a way to ensure your team doesn’t receive messages “out of the blue.” Assign a communications lead, set email reminders… make sure it happens.

C. How managers behave

It’s important to candidly explain to your team why you are making decisions, what you’re trying to achieve, and then listen.  To quote another president, Abraham Lincoln, “When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say.”   Be sure you listen to their concerns.

You’ll of course need to communicate with your client base, as well.  Though that line might be blurred, according to Edward Happ, Crisis Informatics and IT Leadership professor at U Michigan, “everyone becomes an external customer” with COVID.  Your clients need to know what to expect, both to meet their needs, and to keep you open for business.

III. Execute

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” — General George S. Patton

Get started.  There is no time to waste.  You will literally save lives if you act swiftly and decisively. It’s good to remember your plan will need to adapt, so don’t become emotionally invested in it.

As your plan goes into execution, observe progress and risk factors carefully.  This feeds the planning cycle, helping you cope with new and changing hazards in a dynamic environment.  While you execute, you should already be using what you’ve learned to plan for the next hazard.  Dealing with this crisis will require improvisation, and the planning cycle will fuel that.

However, improvisation alone isn’t enough; continued operations will require ordinary people to rise to extraordinary circumstances, with resilience and endurance. See Diane Coutu, “How Resilience Works,” Harv Bus Rev (May 2002).  Matrix yourself, your teams, and your organization for resilience so that you can execute sustainably throughout the crisis.

Mentally prepare for unexpected, potentially overwhelming circumstances.  A wise Sergeant First Class I served with helped me see the value in mental preparation and rehearsal.  He taught me it can close the gap between what you’ve trained for, and what surprises you.  Would an Afghan soldier turn his gun on me? (he didn’t).  Would my truck break down on a mission? (it did).  Mentally preparing for the worst improves confidence and competence under stress, and enables you and your team to rely on training and processes, with clear vision.

 Maintain your composure – it could prove critical to the successful execution of your missions. What does this look like?

Back on that dusty Afghan road, we needed to implement protocols, and fast.  Two senior officers were with us, and each acted quite differently.

One of them became excited, dashing after distractions.  After about 15 minutes, he decided we needed water (we didn’t).  He dashed to the truck for water, lost his footing, and fell with a puff of dust while a few water bottles rolled away.  Looking over my shoulder, I just shook my head and focused on my job while he dusted himself off.  In retrospect, I know he was trying to look out for us.  But the hazard was a car bomb, not dehydration.

The other senior officer, of the same rank, was posted on rear security with me where we watched oncoming traffic.  She was cool and collected, calmly identifying hazards to watch as an intermittent flow of cars, horse carts, mopeds, and trucks approached.  It was easy to follow her lead, and I felt reassured to cope with oncoming threats.

Legal Leadership…Now

Ask around, how are people doing?

We’ve all heard divergent stories and realities that people are now living.  Even with increased workloads, some are experiencing comparatively low stress, while others are in panic-mode.  Behind it all?  Leaders and their decision-making.

What type of leader will you be?

Even if we are not in a “leadership position,” this is the time for all of us to “lead up.”  Offer ideas and support — likely, our senior leadership will appreciate a helpful voice amid the chaos.

When I reflect on that Afghan road, I know I could have done better for the officer who was darting around.  At that moment, he needed me to lead up — to help him understand what we needed.  Not water; rather, we needed communication with the guys up front, so I didn’t have to look over my shoulder and risk missing an oncoming threat.  If I’d spoken up, I would have helped him know where to focus on helping us as our leader, which would have improved our overall team performance.

Nobody’s perfect in crisis, but deliberate focus on planning, communication, and execution will help us help each other.  These lessons have improved my response in subsequent tense situations — typhoons, a shipwreck, cruise missile strikes, and now a pandemic, to name a few.  As always, leadership is key, but leading up is just as important.

This pandemic may last a long time.  In virtually every organization, our teams of talented and dedicated people are going to be exhausted.  We’ll need to rely on and care for one other to remain effective.  We’ll need resilience to endure and outlast it.

So, don’t panic.  Let’s maintain a steady focus on the priority: keep everybody safe, now, next month, and beyond, from COVID-19, and also from other hazards raised by the pandemic.  If we feel panic setting in, rely on our team and processes, including those we helped put into place. If we see others begin to panic, lead up.  Mentally prepare for the worst, and look ahead.  We’ll feel more confident, we’ll be more competent, and we’ll have a much better view of your battle space.

The stakes are high.  Our team needs us to step up, right now.  It’s time to get a grip and get going.

Geoff Gillespie’s thoughts are his unofficial, personal opinions, and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.