During the global COVID-19 crisis, Jeff McLean discovered that many lessons he had learned during his career as a Navy fighter pilot on aircraft carriers are relevant for business leaders during troubled and fast-changing times. In this opinion piece, he shares four ways that leaders can help their teams stay calm and focused on their goals during the pandemic. McLean is a senior principal at ghSMART, a consulting firm, where he advises CEOs, boards, and investment firms. He is a former Navy fighter pilot, White House Fellow, and was featured by Wharton Magazine on its 2017 list of 40 notable alumni aged less than 40.
Across the economy, leaders of organizations of all sizes are stepping up to guide their teams through challenging and uncertain times. As crises extend past initial shock to a prolonged period of uncertainty, leaders must consistently project calm, stability, and control when there is ambiguity all around. As a leadership advisor, I am fortunate to advise and partner closely with many CEOs, boards, and investment funds in solving their most difficult leadership challenges. During the global COVID-19 crisis, I have discovered that many lessons learned during my career as a Navy fighter pilot on aircraft carriers are relevant for business leaders as they strive to maintain composure and keep teams focused during these troubled and fast-changing times.
Here are four things leaders can do to steady their teams and arm individuals with the information, confidence, and commitment to steer their organizations through hard times.
1. Communicate regularly. By far the most important step leaders can take to reassure and guide their teams during prolonged periods of uncertainty is to maintain a consistent drumbeat of communication to relay information and check in with their teams. Leaders should set up a forum for the consistent flow of information to team members to provide situation updates, deliver helpful guidance, and allay unfounded fears.A lack of information and communication often breeds rumors that can quickly swirl into assumptions about the worst possible outcomes and undermine motivation and focus. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Having direct updates and guidance from leadership engages individuals and assures them that the people in charge are actively solving problems and charting a constructive course. Even if there is no meaningful update to pass along, maintaining the regularity of the meetings generates confidence and a reassuring sense of consistency.
In the armed forces context, every combat deployment is a significant period of uncertainty and personal challenge. The rhythms of communication from wartime unit commanders are ideal examples to keep in mind during tumultuous periods in the private sector. When I joined my first squadron, the carrier strike group had just returned from a six-month combat deployment, which is normally followed by a long period at home. But, to support the troop surge in Afghanistan in 2010, the carrier was called on to deploy again in short order. For the 5,000 service members on the ship, many of the previous 365 days had been spent at sea, away from home, and in very demanding combat situations. Now, they faced another prolonged period at sea.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” –Marcus Aurelius
Immediately, rumors spread through the ship of an extended deployment seemingly without end in sight. These rumors and the unknown duration of how long the hardship conditions would persist drained individual morale and caused incredible stress for sailors and their families back home. To their great credit, the commanders on the ship created weekly “all hands” meetings, where they could directly share information, quell rumors, and motivate the troops to focus on their crucial work. Ultimately, the crew ended up spending the first three months of the “surge” deployment at sea without a port stop for respite and a total of seven months deployed. Yet, the crew exceeded all expectations for performance and remained focused, calm, and motivated thanks to the consistent engagement from leadership.
2. Be transparent. Always be direct about what you know and honest about what you don’t. People do not expect their leaders to have all the answers, but they want to know that leaders have the facts and are actively charting a course that considers the most recent information. Calmly sticking to the facts, limiting speculation, and basing comments on the realities of the situation will add composure and reassure individuals that leaders are alert at the helm. After a situation update, seek to give actions that your team can focus on that will help move the needle to help them overcome the worry and sense of helplessness that are common during crises. Emphasize that teams should focus on what they can control and do the work for which others are depending on them. Having a clear sense of purpose and how others are counting on you is both empowering and motivating. Reassure people that you believe in their ability to execute and express your gratitude for their hard work and sacrifices for the organization.
For military commanders, dealing in the hard realities of facts is crucial to leading effectively, and there is no room for conjecture. For example, General Colin Powell used to instruct his intelligence officers, “Tell me what you know, then tell me what you don’t know, and only then can you tell me what you think.” That strict order of dealing in facts and transparently identifying unknowns sets a level field that can serve as the basis for effective decision making. In a corporate context, the practice of being transparent ensures credibility with the workforce that will need to execute the plan. Leaders who withhold or attempt to gloss over tough realities will undermine their credibility with teams and will only add fuel to the fire of internal churn and worry. Bad news does not get better with time, so be honest and forthcoming, and your team will appreciate it.
Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein executed these points brilliantly in his early guidance to commanders during the opening days of the current crisis. He instructed commanders to “set proper expectations. Your airmen and families will appreciate candor, not coddling. We don’t know when this will end. We don’t know a lot. Don’t make things up. Tell them what you do know and share what you don’t.” Ending with a call to action, he wrote simply, “It’s not your job to fix this. Your job is to lead.” With confusion and ambiguity swirling in the minds of your team members, deal in facts, and be transparent about unknowns. Save the opining and venturing into hypotheticals for your smaller team strategy sessions.
3. Reinforce guiding principles. When speaking with your teams, consistently reinforce your organization’s principles and how they are driving decision-making among the leadership team. Authentically encourage everyone in the organization to let those principles be their guide in challenging times. In dynamic situations, individuals who have these core values at the top of their minds when making decisions will act with the interests of the organization and will make more effective decisions with better outcomes. Principles exist to define the character of an organization, and they can provide every team member with strength, direction, and affirmation in the most challenging times.
Military units are exceptional at leaning on principles and core values to help drive character and behavior, and the core values of military units are memorialized and embedded in the fundamental culture of every fighting unit. Within hours of arriving at the Naval Academy, new midshipmen are immediately taught and challenged to memorize the Academy’s Mission Statement, which lays out the core principles of the institution. At West Point, “Duty, Honor, Country” carries such significance that General MacArthur used them as the core pillars of his farewell speech 40 years after graduating. In the Air Force, “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do” help to ground the thinking and actions of leaders across the service.
The best businesses are driven by core principles that outline what the organizations stand for and how they operate; these are crucial guideposts during a crisis.
The best businesses are similarly driven by core principles that outline what the organizations stand for and how they operate; these are crucial guideposts during a crisis. One of our firm’s core values is “Who Matters,” which underscores our belief that our people are the core strength of our team. This has great significance in how we engage as team members during good times but also provides crucial guidance during times of crisis. Staying true to serving our people, our firm leaders have prioritized many significant discretionary cuts that will occur before any person would be in danger of losing their job. Firm leaders have laid out the ways in which the firm will sacrifice in order to support and protect each individual, so that in turn, we have the mental and emotional bandwidth to focus on supporting the leaders we serve as clients.
4. Don’t forget to listen. Don’t just transmit information—make time and be prepared to receive it as well. These communication sessions also provide crucial opportunities for you to hear the thoughts, concerns, and realities of operators on the front lines. Doing so will help leaders see blind spots that might be missed in higher-level strategy and crisis management sessions. Teams will uncover potential areas of concern that have been overlooked, and they likely have the best ideas on how those problems can be addressed. Knowing there is an open conduit to raise issues up the chain of command will engage people even further and maintain their buy-in.
On an aircraft carrier, the commander who oversees all the squadrons that make up the combined Air Wing hosts a forum at the end of each day of combat operations where every pilot who flew a mission that day can provide a succinct debrief of the mission, provide a situation update, and raise any administrative issues that could be improved in the Air Wing’s procedures. Called a “hotwash,” this meeting is the single best forum for the commander to get real-time updates and feedback from pilots in the field to make real-time process improvements. The consistent updating of context and situational awareness helps the Air Wing commander provide more informed strategic guidance.
“Circumstances don’t make the man; they only reveal him to himself.” –Epictetus
Sharing this information in a public forum also helps every pilot in the Air Wing gain insight, capture lessons learned from peers, and improve situational awareness to inform decision making going forward. During times of crisis, a leader can move so fast in the generation of ideas and actions that the organization can be left behind without time to catch up operationally, and without soliciting and listening closely to the feedback coming up from the team, a leader misses out on crucial input.
Ultimately, by keeping your teams informed on a regular basis and providing the consistency and insight that all people desire during times of uncertainty, your teams will step up and amaze you with their execution and ability to deliver under pressure. People want to work hard and focus on helping the organization through tough times, but they need to know the situation and how they can help. How you act in challenging times as a leader defines your character and directly impacts how your organization will survive.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “Circumstances don’t make the man; they only reveal him to himself.” Take time in your crisis management to thoughtfully prepare communication to your team to lead them effectively. Engage your teams openly, calmly, and consistently, and you will all emerge stronger and more dedicated on the other side.