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Managing in era of anxiety: How some leaders shine in face of change

Thursday, July 16, 2020 @ 1:46 PM | By Naveen Mehta

Naveen Mehta %>
Naveen Mehta
Peter never agreed with his province’s stay-at-home order. The managing partner of a medium-sized real estate law firm, Peter realized that shutting down the “brick and mortar” face of the business for months would mean a significant loss of revenue across the practice.  

Angry with his partners’ decision and skeptical about the science behind COVID-19 (for reasons really biased by the potential revenue loss), Peter took his frustration out on junior partners, associates and paralegals. He peppered them with insults for asking to work from home. We are an essential service. You need to be in the office! What are you afraid of? Quietly he would mutter when in earshot of the young male associates — We don’t have enough real men here.

Just over two months into the pandemic, George Floyd was brutally killed and other acts of horrific racism captured on smartphones. The world erupted and Peter’s staff and partners began asking what the firm’s response at the predominantly “white” firm would be. Initially, Peter said nothing to his staff. He told his partners that people die every day. It’s terrible but we are a law firm, a business, and we are bleeding money right now.

After much prodding from his partners he reluctantly said fine to a watered-down version of a statement made by another law firm. He cited hiring of a “brown-looking” articling student that year as the reason why anti-racism training was not needed.

While the team was not happy with Peter’s behaviour, they were not surprised by it either. After all, “The Boss” has always been the prickly type. Prone to emotional outbursts and demeaning treatment of others, Peter is the type of person many people loathe being around in office and private settings. If surveyed, most of Peter’s colleagues would acknowledge that low office morale set in long before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and the death of George Floyd.

In fact, as his people begin transitioning back to the office and businesses reopen storefronts, several of Peter’s team have decided they would not be returning to the firm at all.

Effective leadership in ordinary times is tough; effective leadership in a crisis is both challenging and necessary. When the leader is confronting her own personal struggles in a time of crisis, leadership acumen and effectiveness is pushed to the limit. So, what is called for in a crisis? Decisiveness, for starters. Consider, for example, the leadership of Adam Silver who serves as the commissioner for the National Basketball Association (NBA). Silver compassionately communicated with NBA players and owners about the threat of COVID-19 before taking decisive action to mitigate its most negative impacts.

Michaela J. Kerrissey and Amy C. Edmondson of the Harvard Business Review said this about Silver’s resolve: “In a moment of tremendous ambiguity, Silver’s decisive action — well before state governments began restricting public gatherings in the United States — set off a chain of events that almost certainly altered the course of the virus. Over a million fans would now avoid potential exposure at games. Moreover, the decision had a powerful ripple effect: The suspension of the NCAA’s historic ‘March Madness’ college tournament; the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and other sports leagues halting their own operations; and the rescheduling of the Boston Marathon.”

Kerrissey and Edmondson contend that Silver aced the so-called COVID-19 leadership test. “Passing that test,” they write, “requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.” In terms of specific leadership behaviours, effective “crisis” leaders practise composure, agency and follow through when leading their teams through the inevitable storms. All these practices assume that the leader has a high level of emotional intelligence and can equip the teams to strengthen their levels of emotional intelligence too.

This is part one of a two-part series.

Naveen Mehta is chief legal officer at MESH/diversity. As an award-winning global diversity, inclusion and workplace leadership speaker and educator, he is a thought leader on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and professional services industries. He spent six years as general counsel to one of Canada’s largest labour organizations and is a seasoned human rights and labour lawyer with 20 years of experience.

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