The usefulness of a leadership model depends on whether a leader understands how it applies, how it doesn’t, and how to implement.

You can be confident that the Peacetime versus Wartime CEO paradigm, coined by Ben Horowitz of Andreeson Horowitz and inspired by The Godfather, will get a lot of attention as leaders seek guidance on responding to Coronavirus. It’s equally likely that takeaways about leading in wartime will be misconstrued and based on incorrect or outdated tropes.

In addition to coaching and training leaders in Silicon Valley, I’m an international conflict advisor for the United Nations. Here’s what to consider as a wartime CEO.

You’re leading in a “fog of war.”

A ‘fog of war,’ while known to Americans as the 2003 film about Robert McNamara, refers to a concept presented (though not coined) by military analyst, Carl von Clausewitz. War creates circumstances that are inherently volatile and ambiguous. A leader must make important strategic and tactical decisions without critical contextual information.

The evolution of the Coronavirus pandemic represents the densest of fogs. Not only is the available information limited, ambiguous, and/or distorted, we lack predictive information given the novelty of the disease and the circumstances it has created.

Photo by Mathias Jensen on Unsplash

That said, this isn’t war and being a wartime CEO doesn’t mean being a general.

Coronavirus is not war; the stakes and relationships differ. First, a pandemic is a different adversary than insurgents or nations. While Coronavirus creates an existential threat to your company, you exist for reasons separate from defending against it and you have no chance of defeating it. You have to be realistic about what is — and isn’t –in your control and shouldn’t take action that undermines your credibility or purpose once the crisis abates.

Second, you need a different kind of buy-in from your employees than a general requires from subordinates. Effective CEOs must rely more heavily on personal power for authority, even — and perhaps particularly — in crisis.

So what can you can do?

1. Communicate downstream with even greater integrity and transparency.

Create a path through the fog for those you lead. In crisis, people want to know they are being led by someone they trust who has sound judgment and their interests in mind. Use your internal and external communications to convey just that.

Where you can provide answers or clarity, do so. Where you can’t, don’t pretend you can. Instead, articulate how you plan to operate in the absence of clarity. Be honest about what’s knowable and not, and what’s achievable and not. Give employees and stakeholders reason to trust in your process and convey that you trust them in return. People are remarkably resourceful and resilient when you give the chance and permission to be.

2. Embrace agility and release ego.

The Coronavirus battlefield is changing from hour to hour as disease transmission and public response evolve. The course of action you decided on in the morning may prove to be foolish or infeasible by afternoon. That’s to be expected and must be embraced. There is no shame in pivoting, improvising, or retracting prior assertions based on new information and sound judgment. And point 1 above tells you how to handle a pivot, e.g. with transparency and an explanation of your process.

Leaders fail when they can’t stay present with evolving circumstances because they are overly focused on how they may be perceived. This is a time for the ego to soften and to recognize that it is not about you — It is about the wellbeing of your company, your employees, and those who trust in you.

3. Seek counsel and advice.

While Coronavirus is novel, crises and the challenge of leading in “the fog of war” are not. If you are a new leader or have been a Peacetime CEO to date, there are battle-tested leaders and coaches ready to provide support and advice.

But be a critical consumer! Entrepreneurial or opportunistic types are going to be rebranding themselves and their services as “crisis management” in the coming months. But not all crisis experience is relevant; the Coronavirus context is a far cry from run-of-the-mill PR dilemmas. Look for experts who have led during large-scale upheavals with political, social, and economic consequences. They are fewer and farther between but will be much more relevant.

Finally, breathe. Trust yourself. Surround yourself with people you trust. Stay positive. While extremely challenging, crises are opportunities for radical transformation and growth.

The (em) Collective can ensure that you’re prepared. Enroll in our bootcamp about Leading during Crisis.

Posted on:

Wednesday, March 18, 2020