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Servant Leadership During the Corona Virus Crisis

Leadership is often defined by how one responds during a crisis. A leader's values, principles, and priorities are fully on display for all to see in these moments. Especially, this latest global crisis trying to manage the COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease) pandemic. I know many of my colleagues in country management roles around the world are faced with three layers of complexity in this moment. 1) Should they wait for decisions to be made at the corporate level related to the appropriate handling of the crisis? 2) Have they collected the relevant local data to inform decisions including competitor activity, other industry players, the health system, and regulators? And 3) can they accurately project the inevitable financial impacts of the crisis on budgets and forecasts and come up with potential mitigations to maintain business continuity?

Depending on your orientation as a leader, this moment will either be extremely stressful and difficult or relatively straightforward to address.

Top-down oriented leaders may find themselves paralyzed by internal politics and beaurocracies. Not wishing to upset the apple cart might lead to significant delays on crucial decisions. The unfortunate example of this right now is the US government at the federal and state level. Most politicians were waiting to align and coordinate actions based on the tone from the top in the Oval Office, which in the case of America has been riddled with misinformation and a lack of sense of urgency, ultimately leading to a grand failure of the American people who elected these officials into office.

Inverted hierarchy oriented leaders have been far more proactive in this instance. Putting the health and safety of employees above commerce, these leaders have acted fast to implement home office measures, cancel large-scale events, and minimize unnecessary employee travel both domestic and international. The best example of this approach I have seen is with The Golden State Warriors, a basketball team in the National Basketball Association, who elected to play a game without fan attendance a full eighteen hours before the NBA decided to suspend the season. Kudos to the team's management who, rather than wait on orders, took care of their people first and will manage the consequences in turn.

Unfortunately, at this point, if you are a leader of an organization who has not taken the necessary actions, you are losing valuable credibility and employee confidence by the minute. Think of it this way - each employee who becomes afflicted with the virus potentially will remain out of work (aka unproductive) for up to fourteen days. Versus encouraging relevant employees to work from home, and potentially remain healthy and productive for a similar two-week period. Of course, this option may not be available in every industry - so how to determine the right course of action in this instance?

Servant leaders approach such a problem by asking a single question. What potential solutions minimize risk to employees while keeping them engaged and productive? They invite the relevant team members in the discussion. They encourage the debate and multiple points of view. They make sure there is a business continuity plan in place. Then they document the decision and move forward together.

They don't wait for their bosses' permission or direction. They have a bias toward action that protects their people first. Hopefully, they work for a company that supports such an empowered approach, but if not, they are comforted by the fact that they did their jobs and truly served their organization. And rather than obsessing about commercial losses, they focus their efforts on ensuring business continuity for customers.

The basic fact of this crisis is that sick employees can't serve the customer. It's also an unfortunate fact of business today that sick companies don't serve and support their people. And thusly, a pandemic like the one we are currently living through may count poorly-oriented corporations among its casualties when its all said and done.

Regardless of your company's orientation, as a leader, it's your role to stand up and say, "Not on my watch!"

Your people will thank you.

Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Please follow him on instagramtwitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.

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