Covid-19 is impacting progress on diversity and inclusion initiatives when urgent focus is required

In a year when millions of people across the world have struggled to manage their lives and work through a dual health and financial crisis, we have been reminded – yet again – why diversity and inclusion policies and practices are critical.

During Covid-19 it has been diverse employees – women, LGBTQ+ employees, people of color —who have had to face some of the toughest challenges, both in the workplace and through demands of balancing work and home life.

Yet new research reveals that nine out of ten executives are finding it hard to execute their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies; a convincing fail by any standard and a particularly bitter pill when diverse employees are living through a period when these strategies are most needed.

Last month McKinsey & Company published the findings from their study of 1,122 executives and 2,656 employees across 11 countries during August – September, 2020. The study examined the impact of Covid-19 on women, LGBTQ+, people of color and working parents.

The research found that only one in six people from these diverse groups felt more supported by their employers now than in pre-COVID times. This is despite the research finding that each of the groups were found to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic than other employees.

Maureen Frank is the Founder and Chief Disruption Officer of the diversity and inclusion library, Emberin. One of the issues that she believes has limited progress in D&I has been a focus by some companies on appearance as opposed to fundamental change.

“In the past leaders and organisations have proudly shouted about how good they are at diversity and inclusion. They have won awards; they have run big PR oriented events. The truth however is that much of the rhetoric does not match the reality” according to Frank.

Franks confirms that there has “never been a time when it is more urgent for organisations to leverage the voices of all their people – across genders, generations, cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds”.

Pre-existing inequalities have been amplified by Covid-19

The McKinsey research supports the need for urgency around D&I highlighting that pre-existing inequalities have only been amplified by Covid-19 and diverse employees report additional challenges that have been felt more acutely than their non-diverse counterparts.

For example, the McKinsey research found that women face a disproportionate level of stress as a result of Covid-19 than men. Women are 1.2 times more likely to cite acute difficulties with workload increases, connectivity and belonging, and physical health. In the US, women are 2.6 times as likely to report serious challenges with mental health as compared with their male counterparts.

The gender disparity extended to working mothers as compared to working fathers as well with 73 percent of working mothers reporting having struggled with household responsibilities and mental health concerns compared with 65 percent of working fathers.

For LGBTQ+ employees, where allyship in social and work settings is an important source of belonging, the McKinsey report found LGBTQ+ employees were 1.4 times as likely as straight and cisgender employees to cite significant challenges with fair performance reviews, workload increases, and struggling with a loss of workplace connectivity and belonging.

Given the disproportionate health impacts of Covid-19 experienced by people of color, it is not surprising that people of color surveyed reported more acute challenges than other employees in workplace health and safety as well as career progression and household responsibilities.

Leaders need to walk the diversity talk

For leaders, the challenges facing diverse employees are often well known. The breakdown seems to arise when it comes to leaders understanding how to best roll out D&I initiatives that can truly make a difference at an individual level often within a large organisation.

The challenge has been further exacerbated this year through having to lead in a largely virtual environment.

“The work we have done in the past in creating inclusive cultures is easy compared to our current environment. It is easy for leaders to try new things and experiment when someone is right there, when they have visibility” says Frank.

Those surveyed by McKinsey suggested four key reasons why D&I initiatives were failing and none of these seem particularly unique to the context of Covid-19 –

1.    Lack of employee awareness of D&I programs (26 percent);

2.    Financial incentives not being aligned with D&I goals (25 percent);

3.    Insufficient leadership role modelling (25 percent); and

4.    Being stretched too thin (23 percent).

Where there is a lack of leadership priority, role modelling and communication around diversity and inclusion it is no wonder even the best-intentioned initiatives fail.

According to Frank, the success of D&I in the future will depend on leaders looking in the mirror –

“I hope leaders will be okay with greater vulnerability and realising that they are perhaps not as inclusive as they think they are and claim to be. A leader who has a growth mindset and wants to learn and knows they don’t know everything about difference and creating a sense of belonging for an individual – that leader is way more likely to succeed at being inclusive than the leader who claims they are the expert!”.

The need for leaders to listen and learn is supported by the McKinsey research which highlights the need for companies to provide more targeted support to their diverse employees. While company-wide responses to working virtually may have alleviated some initial challenges for employees, diverse employees are still struggling to cope with a wide range of issues that go well beyond remote working.

Every leader needs to ask themselves how high a priority they have placed on supporting their diverse employees during Covid-19 and what they can be doing to move it back up the agenda to ensure D&I initiatives are actually making a difference where they are needed.

Frank has a call to action for all leaders to consider – “Creating an inclusive culture where we are curious, where we challenge group think and the way things have always been done and where we live and breath a growth mindset: that’s the charter of an organization that will smash through this mess and come back fighting!”.

If you are a leader and the last time you thought about D&I was at a physical celebration of some kind before you had even heard of Covid-19, now is the time to do something meaningful to truly show you understand how to walk the talk with diversity and inclusion beyond the PR hype.

First published on Forbes.com on 8 December 2020.

Ten reasons why virtual meetings are the best thing to happen in 2020

As COVID-19 continues to dominate our lives it is worth reflecting on at least one positive development that has emerged during a challenging year. 2020 has seen the rise, and continuing rise, of virtual meetings which are unlikely to be going anywhere in a hurry. Like the impact of the pandemic, the mainstream move to virtual meetings will change our working lives forever.

Sure, some companies are now proudly boasting they have been using virtual meetings for years. However, for the rest of us, until 2020 if we had attended a virtual meeting it might have involved a few calls with family members over FaceTime, the occasional webinar or long teleconferences with no video at all.

It is fair to say the vast majority of businesses and employees were oblivious to the benefits of virtual meetings until it was thrust upon them by necessity and virtually overnight.

The move to virtual meetings as a business norm is an exciting development that is hopefully here to stay as we witness it leading to changes in meeting dynamics as well as providing a much-needed tool to help boost workplace inclusion, diversity and work life balance.

I spend most of my working week in meetings. Before the pandemic, this meant being on a flight once or twice a week to attend board meetings in different locations around the country. My calendar was generally filled with a variety other meetings as well including coffee catch ups, lunch meetings, business events and speaking engagements.

With the onset of the pandemic, like so many others I suddenly found myself working from home and attending all my meetings virtually. I was also giving speeches to a virtual audience I could not see. At the start of 2020, I was a relative novice using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet and yet some six months later, I think virtual meetings are not only here to stay but have been one of the brighter moments in an otherwise challenging year.

Here are ten reasons why I think virtual meetings have so much to offer us all.

1.    Less Waffle, More Decision Making

As a general rule, virtual meetings tend to be more efficient as there is an acknowledgement that no one wants to stay online longer than they have to. If you have a well-run virtual meeting, your agenda will have been circulated ahead of time, pre-reading will have been done by attendees and the meeting will start and finish on time. Having virtual meeting ‘rules’ such as staying on mute when not talking, asking questions in the chat function or using the raised hand to indicate you want to speak, allocating time for breaks and having a Chair who keeps the discussion on track, will all mean an effective meeting where decisions are made and time is saved.

2.    Discussion Dominators Are Diminished

As all of our meetings move online, you may have observed that colleagues who might have once dominated discussions now seem a little quieter (or at least now only speaking in equal amounts to their colleagues). I am confident one day a direct correlation will be found between those who used to dominate face to face meetings being the same people who now always need to be reminded that they are still on mute. And they are also the same people who seem incapable of positioning their camera in a way that people can actually see them. In short, speaking loudly and interrupting people may have once been a way to help dominate a discussion but those rules no longer apply.

3.    Death Of The Power Suit

As many people are now working from home or working in vastly more empty workplaces, we are seeing our colleagues wearing what they have probably always wanted to wear to meetings – comfortable clothes. Gone are the expensive power suits, high heels and perfectly coifed hair. Virtual meetings allow us to respect and value our colleagues for their contributions rather than their appearance and people are encouraged to bring their authentic, whole selves to meetings rather than external symbols of success and power. The time saved in getting dressed and ready for a meeting is time well saved!

4.    Size Really Doesn’t Matter

Anyone who has previously held a room through their sheer size and physical presence must now be feeling at a bit of a loss. The power pose, overbearing handshake or the habit of leaning aggressively across the desk to make a point are now gone. Much more valued by your colleagues, and completely unrelated to physical prowess, is being able to position your camera in a way that people can actually see you, knowing how to use the technology and being available and able to contribute.

5.    Everyone Is Welcome

Pre-COVID, many membership organisations or businesses held events or gatherings designed to bring people together after work, often in a city location and frequently at a time that didn’t suit many. Such events often precluded people with caregiving responsibilities, people with a busy diary, people with disabilities and people who did not live nearby. The move to have these gatherings online has meant many more people can now participate in events, breakout room discussions and networking opportunities. The old view that networking can only happen in person has been well and truly challenged by the move online.

6.    Sharing Made Simple

Regardless of how impressive a physical meeting room might be, it is a more seamless experience to receive a presentation and participate in a meeting online than it is to sit around a table, craning to see the presenter and shuffling chairs to see the presentation screen. With a virtual meeting, everyone can equally see and hear the presenter, the slides are able to be read clearly on your screen, you can ask questions through the chat function rather than having to disturb the flow of the discussion and you can switch off the camera and take a bathroom break without having to sneak out the back of the room hoping the door doesn’t slam and disturb everyone on your way out. Breakout rooms in a virtual meeting are also much more efficient than instructing people to form groups of a certain size, find a space somewhere in the room, carry a chair and finish on time. In a virtual meeting, breakout groups can be timed to ensure a focused discussion, it is easy to allocate people into any sized groups and everyone can feel they have been consulted.

7.    Buying Back Time  

For as long as any of us can remember there has been discussions about whether the elusive concept of work life balance can ever really be achieved. While online meetings are not the only answer, the time saved in travelling back and forth to face to face meetings now means we have regained time that can be spent on other things. Depending on how far you might have previously needed to travel for face to face meetings (across the world, across the country, across the city or across the office) the travel time which has been saved is an enormous bonus for people who can now spend that time on other things they might have previously have needed to do at the end of their working week.

8.    Coming To You From … Anywhere

The beauty of an online meeting is that it no longer matters where you are physically located. You might choose to live in a city, on a farm or at the beach. Or perhaps on a boat or in a van, travelling the country. Geographic freedom is a massive boost for those who choose to live away from their physical workplaces and importantly it also means employers now have a virtually boundless pool of talented potential employees to choose from. It also means people with disabilities or others who may have been prevented from commuting to work for whatever reason can, and should be, considered for your team. The idea of having to live commuting distance from a physical office has been shown in 2020 to be a concept that is being seriously challenged.

9.    Punctual Is Perfect

A punctual meeting is a good meeting and as a general rule, virtual meetings tend to start and finish on time (or at least far more so than a physical meeting). There is no more waiting for stragglers to finish making their coffee in the office kitchen, waiting for someone who visited the bathroom on the way to the meeting or for those colleagues saying goodbye to their last client in reception before arriving late. Gone are the days you can blame traffic, delayed flights or public transport for being late for a virtual meeting and for this, your colleagues are very grateful.

10. One In, All In

With everyone attending virtual meetings there is a much greater sense of equality of experience amongst meeting attendees. Pre-COVID, sometimes virtual meetings may have been a mix of some people “in the room where it happened” (thanks, Hamilton) while others dialled in and invariably missed out on some of the body language and experiences of the physical meeting. There was often a sense of ‘otherness’ if you were the person on the phone or video call when everyone else was in the physical meeting. This has now been removed by everyone part of the same experience and benefits.

There is no doubt virtual meetings are now here to stay. The longer the use of online meetings are a normal part of life, the less likely it is that we will return to pre-COVID ways of frequent, long meetings in person. And that is a very good thing.

For all the positives, there are also downsides to virtual meetings. We lose the opportunity for impromptu side conversations and relationship building outside of the formal meeting. We lose the chance to chat and network in a way that feels much more natural. And the sense of feeling isolated and removed from colleagues and family when talking through a computer screen all day is real.

However, the downsides of online meetings are far outweighed by the benefits which include the ability to include, equally, all members of a team and to ensure all voices are heard. Online meetings provide an excellent way to help drive diversity and inclusion and to also employ people who have the talent to offer regardless of where they might live.

Love them or hate them, the virtual meeting is here to stay.

First published on Forbes.com on 21 July 2020.

Five opportunities to reimagine your leadership in the ‘new normal’

We hear a lot about the ‘new normal’ in relation to the way we will live, socialise, work and communicate after the pandemic ends.

Like most challenges, this also means we have an opportunity to think about a ‘new normal’ approach to leadership. There are many lessons we can learn from strong, effective leaders during this crisis and apply it to our leadership styles now. Not in the future. Not even after the pandemic.

Whether we like it or not, our legacy as a leader is being made today. The way your decisions, actions, words and choices make those you lead feel during this crisis will be remembered for a long time to come. It is not too late to focus on your personal leadership and to seize the opportunity to lead in a way that will leave a powerful, positive legacy for all those in your wake. Fortunately, thinking about a ‘new normal’ is a chance for us all to reimagine our ‘new normal’ way of leading as well.

Powerful leadership examples

Early in the health crisis, Arne Sorenson, Chief Executive Officer of Marriott International, gave a five minute speech to his global staff which was candid, vulnerable, humble and emotional while balancing that with a decisive path forward and a sense of reassurance, for those who are being led by him, that they will see this crisis through together. Sorenson showed himself to be a leader that was resolute and courageous and able to combine that with a massive dose of transparency and emotional intelligence.

Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), made one of the first high profile decisions to suspend a major sport when the 2020 basketball season was cancelled very early in the pandemic. He made that decision in the face of great uncertainty – the virus had not yet reached the United States – and at a time when you can imagine there would have been many stakeholders counselling the NBA and Silver against making such as significant financial decision without much more information.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is often seen at the podium making strong decisions about the fight against COVID-19. Yet at the same time, she is prepared to be incredibly authentic with an example being a Facebook Live session she held answering questions from New Zealanders while sitting on her living room couch, wearing her sweat pants, having just put her toddler to bed. Jacinda Ardern is the type of leader who confidently and comfortably adapts her leadership style without any loss of respect by those she leads. Quite the contrary, her authenticity and transparency earns trust.

Five opportunities for all leaders

So what do these examples mean for us and what opportunities can we seize as leaders now as we think about our ‘new normal’?

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It means truly being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

This pandemic has affected everyone in very different ways. While some people are enjoying the ‘pause’ from regular life and are happily baking bread at home, others are struggling for survival after losing their jobs and financial security. One of the many responsibilities of a leader is to understand that individual situation for every person they lead.

Never has it been more important for a leader to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others to understand what is driving people’s decision-making – knowing what is going on for them – for example, before jumping to conclusions that they are not performing at work or are not adapting to the ‘new normal’.

Self-awareness

The next opportunity for all leaders is truly practice becoming highly self-aware so you are aware of the impact you have on those around you. This is a skill that all leaders should aspire to build given it is also an essential ingredient to being able to show empathy.

Whether you are a leader who has been leading your country, your business, you community or your family, every leader in the world would have had moments when they would have felt anxious, scared or overwhelmed by this crisis. No one has been trained to prepare to respond to a crisis of this magnitude and the decisions leaders make can result in lives saved or lost. A self-aware leader is able to assess whether they are feeling anxious and manage it as best they can and not create further anxiety for the people they lead through responding to those they lead with frustration, anger or despair. Self-aware leaders are also able to assess whether the way they are communicating with those they lead is having a positive or counter-productive impact and adapt their style accordingly.

Decisiveness in the face of uncertainty

We are all naturally inclined to want to make decisions after we have gathered all the data and can assess the risks. This crisis has shown though that you cannot wait for information – if you wait for proof that something will work you are guaranteed to fail. In many cases, that information may not be forthcoming for some time, if at all, and those you lead are looking to you to confidently lead them forward. Some of the best leaders in the world make decisions confidently, quickly and courageously and they do so with empathy, self-awareness and transparency.

An ability to adjust the pace of your decision making and to be able to make decisions in the face of little or no information has been a critical factor of success for many leaders in this crisis.

Be prepared to accept failure

Now is the time for leaders to set ego aside and accept they do not have all the answers and that they are going to make mistakes. Maybe quite a few. The pandemic has provided leaders with the unique situation that no one knows the answers, no one knows what will or won’t work in any given situation. We still don’t know how the crisis will unfold.

The skill for leaders to be able to make decisions and accept that some choices and decisions won’t work is incredibly important – just as it is important to be able to change course as soon as you realise that is needed. Make decisions as you need to, watch how it unfolds and as soon as it is time to change course, do so without any fear of appearing to have lacked decisiveness. Be prepared to seek advice, admit you don’t know all the answers and accept that this decision is the best one you can make right now but that you may need to change course again soon.

Adapt your leadership style

This crisis has seen us inside the homes our leaders – there has been a true ‘bringing our whole selves to work’ – as we see pets, children, casual clothes, bookshelves of our leaders. Leaders should not be afraid of this as it does not mean that we lose sight of the strength and effectiveness of those leaders we trust.

Don’t be afraid to adapt your leadership style to the situation. What matters more is the consistency you live the values you lead by and the ability you have to share good news and bad.

What would you have done in this moment? Spoken up or stayed silent?

For those who may have missed it, during a White House briefing this week, President Trump speculated that injecting detergent into coronavirus patients might be an effective form of treatment for COVID-19. After a barrage of negative comments from health officials, including brands like Dettol and Lysol confirming that under no circumstances should their products be ingested or injected into the body, Trump reversed his comments and claimed he was being “sarcastic”.

In the White House Briefing Room with President Trump that day was Dr Deborah Birx, a highly respected and accomplished physician who specialises in immunology, vaccine research and global health. Birx is no stranger to working in a political environment having worked for three Presidents during her career including her appointment by President Obama to lead the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief and more recently an appointment by President Trump to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The footage of Dr Birx’s reaction to President Trump’s comments immediately went viral. Birx did not correct Trump but remained silent during the awkward exchange. Birx’s body language is revealing as you see her avert her gaze, stiffen in her chair, rapidly blink and take a number of deep breaths. You could be forgiven for thinking she appears completely dumbstruck by what she hears Trump suggest.

What do you think you would have done in Dr Birx’s shoes?

Missed opportunity to lead

Putting politics aside, I believe we can all find empathy for Birx during these few moments. Birx’s entire career has been in the medical profession seeking to find cures to communicable diseases and enhance public health. She would have known, clearly, the consequences of what the President was suggesting. I am sure if any of us were in Birx’s shoes we would have wanted to be anywhere, but there, in that moment, especially as he looked to her to confirm his views.

Despite the extremely challenging situation, it is also clear what needed to be said by Birx in that moment.

Birx needed to summon all the courage she could to correct the President when he called on her. She needed to say, respectfully, something to the effect of “No, Mr President. What are you suggesting is not correct and will cause significant health consequences.” As an individual, this was an opportunity to demonstrate authentic, courageous leadership. As a physician and leader in the response to COVID-19 in the United States, this was an opportunity demonstrate leadership on behalf of the scientific community and health workers putting their own lives at risk to keep people safe.

It would have been completely understandable for Birx to spend those few moments weighing up the personal consequences that might flow from speaking up and questioning the President so publicly. There would have been an ingrained deference to her leader (compounded by the fact he is the President) as well as a genuine fear of losing her job and the very real risk of public humiliation. It was an understandable, human response to remain quiet in that moment.

Yet leadership is about seizing these kinds of opportunities to be courageous and to truly lead. To stand up for what you know to be right even in the face of personal consequences and immense discomfort. Leaders legacies are made in the tough moments when everyone wishes they were not you.

This was Dr Birx’s moment.

On a broader level, Birx had the opportunity to represent and lead the scientific community. Birx holds a position of significant influence and importance in the American fight against COVID-19. The decisions she makes can save lives.

In a letter to the Editor published in the medical journal Nature (coincidentally only two days before this incident) by University of Cambridge academic Patricia Andrews Fearon and others, the following clarion call is made to all members of the scientific community –

“We urge the scientific community to seize the opportunity to build trust … Now, more than ever, we must show our commitment to humility, honesty and the public good”.

This was Dr Birx’s moment to do just that.

While we may all like to imagine how we would have bravely spoken up if we were in Birx’s shoes, the reality is very few of us would. In her book The Fearless Organisation, Amy C. Edmondson reports that in one research study 85% of employees reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue to be important. We should therefore not be surprised that Birx remained silent.

Yet this is also precisely why, as leaders ourselves, we must ensure our workplaces are psychologically safe environments where people are encouraged to speak up.

My hope for all of us as leaders is that when our moment comes and we find ourselves in a challenging situation like this, we find the courage to step up and lead. Those we lead are relying on us to show the way.

What opportunities will you seize to define your ‘new normal’ as a leader?

There is no doubt that the legacy of every leader is being written right now as we work through this crisis. We are unlikely to ever see our leaders, and that includes ourselves, tested in this way again during our lifetimes.

We will remember those leaders who made us feel safer just as we will remember those leaders who added to our anxiety. We will remember the leaders who checked in to make sure we had everything we needed at our lowest points just as we will remember those leaders who never asked.

Every single one of us is a leader, whether a leader in our homes, our local communities, our businesses or our governments. Each day we are making decisions about how best we can choose to lead through this crisis. And every decision we make is being watched closely by those we impact.

The words of Winston Churchill are often remembered during challenging times and none more so than this particular quote from 1940 when Churchill addressed the nation –

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that…[people] will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

While Churchill was speaking to the entire country, implicitly he was also calling on each individual to think about their own contributions to the war effort. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, I think this quote is a reminder that, as leaders, we need to hope the people we lead look back and feel that we too showed it to be our finest hour.

Even the best leaders are self-aware enough to know there are areas where they are challenged and need to develop. Therefore all leaders have an opportunity, right now, to assess their leadership style through understanding that the ‘new normal’ will not just impact the way we work in the future but also what we expect from our leaders.

The most valued leaders around the world during this crisis have been those who have been able to lead decisively and courageously with a compassionate, ethical, emotional intelligence. Sheer intellect has not, and has never been, enough. The smartest people in the room are often not the leaders you would choose to follow into battle and this has been demonstrated in this health crisis.

It is leaders who are ethical, values based and purpose driven who are the leaders we wait to listen to each day. We trust them to have our best interests at heart whether it is in their decision making about our businesses, our schools or our communities. It is those leaders – and those leadership attributes – we will remember and call upon in the future.

It is not too late for all leaders to seize the opportunity to define what kind of leader they wish to be in the ‘new normal’. It is a time to put ego aside and to acknowledge that this is a challenging time, you have been tested beyond all previous expectations and that you are grateful for the wisdom and support of others. Ask those you lead what they need from you and then listen, really listen. Put yourself in their shoes and help them to feel safe in the new way of working as you lead them into the future.

Leaders: You need to decide. Quickly.

Leading your teams decisively while also demonstrating high levels of emotional intelligence has, quite frankly, never been more important. Not only that but many leaders now need to lead in this way remotely, making decisions very quickly and with no real idea of when this crisis will end.

Rapid decision making

While I talk a lot about leaders needing to be emotionally intelligent, in a crisis that does not mean needing to talking issues through, seeking consensus and making measured decisions with all the information to hand. That is simply not possible during a rapidly changing crisis where your team members may be feeling anxious, isolated from their colleagues and looking to you for direction.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can assess which decisions need to be made immediately and will be confident to make those decisions without all the information or data.

For decades, leaders have been taught that decision making requires moving through some of the classic stages of change – gaining buy-in, building a guiding coalition, sharing a vision for the future etc. In a crisis, these steps need to occur simultaneously and immediately. Leaders who communicate well can often do this through being transparent around the reasons for their decision, explaining what they hope will be achieved by it and then once the decision is made, listening to feedback on any adjustments that might be needed.

Leaders simply cannot wait for more information right now. In many cases, that information may not be forthcoming for some time, if at all, and your team leaders are looking to you to confidently lead them forward. Some of the best leaders in the world make decisions confidently, quickly and courageously and they do so with empathy, self-awareness and transparency.

Now is the time for leaders to put ego aside and lead with authenticity, humility and vulnerability. Trust that those you lead will value and respect you for that and in turn, trust you even more.

Leaders: It’s time to step up. Right now.

For the first time in living memory we face a crisis of the sort we have never experienced before. Every conversation focuses on the impact of COVID-19. Every visit to the local supermarket serves as a reminder of the fear people feel. Every headline features a new, frequently shocking, development.

Amongst this there seems to be an inability amongst many, not just in Australia but around the world, to understand that being prepared to lead with extreme transparency and fearless honesty will actually reduce panic, not increase it. Courageous leadership increases trust at a time when trust and confidence amongst those being led is critical.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranked United States military prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War said it well,

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.

There is an urgent need for all leaders to share the brutal facts of the current crisis. People already understand that tragically, people will continue to lose their lives as a result of COVID-19. People already understand that our daily lives will change for the foreseeable future. People understand that there will be jobs that are lost or businesses that may not survive.

Even during the best of times, we need highly emotionally intelligent leaders who are self-aware of the impact their words and actions have on others. However, these skills are even more critical during times of crisis. We need our leaders to share the brutal facts fearlessly while also communicating a confidence that we will endure and we will succeed.

Telling people to stay calm is counterproductive – it increases panic and decreases trust. While a call for calm might work in some leadership situations, it does not work when those you lead see the impact of a crisis with their own eyes and are looking for their leaders to confirm their concerns, not minimise them and then provide a clear path forward.

We need all leaders to lead courageously, authentically and honestly. To have empathy for those they lead and understand the panic people feel is real. We need our leaders to listen to the experts – really listen – and then act on their advice.

We need leaders to urgently issue clear, easy to follow plans to help the people they lead work through this crisis. Those plans need to be communicated widely and then communicated again. And again. This is a time for frequent, honest communication and frankly, as much of it as possible.

These comments are not aimed at any particular leader. We all need to accept we are leaders in our families, communities and businesses regardless of our formal job title. We all have a role to play in leading our way through this crisis with acceptance of the facts and a sureness that we will succeed.

I have lived and breathed “leadership” my whole life, both as a leader myself for almost thirty years and having completed a PhD in the field. I speak about leadership around the world, mentor and advise other leaders and I write about leadership. I have found myself leading people amidst crises where the desire to be fearlessly transparent is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible, to do in practice.

So I can say with absolute confidence that the COVID-19 crisis is the kind of situation every leader thinks about as a possibility but in reality, rarely experiences. These are not usual times.

Leaders, it is time to step up. Right now.

This is what all those years of leading through the good times has been for. The legacy you leave now is the one for which you will be remembered.

Leaders please also remember that having the intellect to be in the position you are is one thing. But far more important right now is having the emotional intelligence to truly understand what you need to say and when.