The current pandemic has been compared to war and, admittedly, I initially bristled at the analogy. Having a father who fought in WWII, a brother who was a Navy submarine captain, and a daughter in the Marine Corps., it sounded like hyperbole. However, as the pandemic rolls on, and daily tragedies grow, I see the wisdom of this comparison. This pandemic is a war, one that is imposing extreme physical and emotional pain–and death–on people and businesses.
Those executives who are leading their teams and organizations through the Covid-19 crisis are most certainly Wartime Leaders. Elliot Ackerman, a veteran of the 2004 assault on Falluja, has real experience with wartime leadership. He has some intensely emotional insights I wanted to share.
Wartime leadership involves, most crucially, two things. The first is steely honesty in the face of grim facts. My company commander modeled this for me in his response to the estimate of 70 percent casualties within our ranks. He gathered the officers and staff non-commissioned officers. He told us that he didn’t know whether the 70 percent figure was accurate but that we should assume it was. He also told us that it didn’t matter. We had a job to do, and our competence in doing it was the only way to keep that figure down.
The second component of wartime leadership is affirming the capabilities of those you lead. The senior enlisted Marine in our division, a sergeant major and 30-year Marine veteran, excelled at this. Two days before the battle, he addressed a large group of us who were headed into the assault. He reminded us that we were part of a legacy stretching back to battles in the Argonne Forest in World War I, to Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in World War II, to Hue City in Vietnam and up to this very day. He placed the battle we were about to fight in a broader context. We were Marines, he affirmed, a link in a chain. As those who came before us did, we’d rise to our challenge…
This was one of the lessons I learned in Falluja. The night before the battle, when I brought my platoon together for a last-minute pep talk, I’d benefited from the example of my company commander and the sergeant major. Standing by the trucks that would drive us to our jump-off point, the platoon gathered in the headlights. And I knew exactly what to say. I didn’t tell them I hoped the casualty figures we’d heard were high or that I had a hunch the battle wouldn’t last too long. Instead, I told the Marines that I didn’t know what was going to happen when we entered the city. I told them that didn’t matter. We knew one another and could rely on one another. That would be enough.
Elliott and his leaders were demonstrating deliberate calm and bounded optimism. Deliberate calm reflects your ability to detach from situational emotion, and demonstrate clear thinking and poise. Your people witness that your “feet are on the ground”. Bounded optimism is modeling authentic faith in the future while maintaining realism about the potential pain, suffering, and setbacks likely to be encountered along the way.
Here are some final thoughts from Elliot on the Falluja engagement.
We went on to fight in Falluja for more than a month. The 70 percent estimate proved inaccurate. Our casualty rate ended up higher. Eventually, though, the battle did end, and in a pleasant surprise it was just in time for Christmas.
Leading with deliberate calm and bounded optimism is absolutely critical right now. There is a third vital leadership behavior with equal standing: empathy. This isn’t the time for an “all business” operating style. Executives are experiencing anxiety and pain on both the personal and professional fronts. As I write this, a client of mine’s father is dying from Covid-19 (she isn’t the only one). At the same time, she is managing monumental business challenges.
Col. Eric G. Kail, who served as Course Director for Military Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has this to say about empathy:
These truths, in turn, rest upon empathy, one’s capacity to comprehend or experience the emotions of another. Followers view leaders in terms of the personal impact made on the followers’ lives. Unfortunately, many leaders spend all their energy trying to impress others when they could be truly impressive by learning more about those whom they lead.
People decide just how much they will allow you to lead them. Sure, if you are in charge, people will most likely do as you say. But how well they carry out your commands and for how long is their decision, not yours.
Leaders demonstrate holistic empathy during the Covid-19 crisis by actively inquiring about their people’s family and personal challenges before charging into business issues. How are YOU doing? How are your spouse and children doing? Do you need anything? This approach ensures you capture the heart as well as the mind of your people. Avoiding these genuine demonstrations of concern implies that you don’t care, which is death to any leader.
As we move through this crisis, leaders need to actively demonstrate deliberate calm, bounded optimism, and empathy. These are virtues that will make the biggest difference as we move through and eventually recover from our current crisis.