2020 has been one of the most challenging years in living memory, a year of pandemic, economic recession, riots, and a hard-fought Presidential election. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans have lost their lives due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and millions more have been made sick or lost jobs. In addition, the entire population has been told to avoid social interaction and spend large amounts of time isolated in their homes, constantly stalked by fear and anxiety. The long-term mental and emotional toll of these tragic events won’t be known for some time. However, as a leader in your organization, it is incumbent on you to set the right example, to provide reassurance, and to project a steady sense of calm in the face of chaos. Staff members in your company are likely to look to the CEO for guidance during such difficult times, and your ability to project a sense of solidarity with your employees will be crucial to maintaining a productive workforce and securing a profitable future.
Whether your meetings occur virtually or in person, it is always a good idea to start by asking how everyone is doing. Allow your staff members to vent a little bit if necessary. Ask them how their families are doing. Do they need anything? What challenges are they facing? Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to have this discussion will show your employees that you care. You may also want to show a bit of vulnerability by sharing some of your own concerns and struggles, particularly if these are senior members of your team. Allowing staff to get these issues off their chests will help them focus on their tasks while also showing you are a caring leader who empathizes with their plight. Displaying appropriate emotion will help endear you to your team and humanize you as the leader.
A good representation of this was the former CEO of Southwest Airlines. During the Christmas rush, he and the other senior leadership of Southwest would spend the holiday season working in the baggage area to help out. Seeing the CEO throwing bags on the conveyer belt let the people who worked in this department at Southwest know that their jobs were valuable and essential. It served to show that the CEO wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and do the same work as his employees. Consider something similar for your organization; perhaps you can work direct customer service for a bit or do a shift in the call center or go out with your work teams on a job. These actions will demonstrate you lead by example and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty.
During these difficult times, try to be as flexible as possible. Whenever you can accommodate staff requests to care for sick relatives or deal with childcare issues, you should do so. Express sympathy and support for those going through tough times. In situations where you have many lower-paid employees, small gestures such as buying them lunch, letting them go home early occasionally, or organizing help if they need it will go a long way to ensuring they feel cared for and supported. So why should you lead by example? Two reasons: