For many of us, the members of Generation X, who have stepped into organisational leadership roles during the last decade, the pandemic might have been the biggest and most unsettling global crisis we have ever faced. The last such global crisis we faced was during the years after 9/11. The world changed rapidly and we, as young executives, then had to cope up with the new reality.
However, the fact that age was on our side and there was a certain level of predictability regarding the ways the world would change helped us to navigate through the troubled water. Most of us were entry-level managers two decades ago and it was the leaders from the baby boomer's era who shouldered the burden of decision-making.
Things have changed now. With a global shift in economic power, demographic change, rise of technology, rapid urbanisation and climate change, the decision-making process has already become complex. The speed and scope of the coronavirus crisis added to this, then created extraordinary challenges for leaders who were already stretched.
While this article is being written, the new Omicron variant keeps on spreading across the world. The borders are getting closed and many of us are back to the drawing board. The continuous uncertainty explains the missed opportunities for decisive action and honest communication.
While we were growing up as young adults and then later as mid-level managers, a common answer to our question "what should we do now?" during any crisis was to "do the right thing." The 'traditionalists'(born before 1946) and the 'baby boomers' (born between 1946 to 1964) who were leading us in society and in the corporate world expected us to find the meaning of the "do the right thing" phrase.
The traditionalists as leaders always wanted more time to share their thoughts elaborately and the 'baby boomers' thought presenting options and letting the younger generation find the answer is a great leadership trait that they should be proud of. But for us, the generation X (born between the mid-1960s and the early-1980s), the answer to the question is "why?" To us, direct communication has always been precious. No one was right or wrong, and we all had our points, but the gaps in approach did not do anyone a favour.
Now with generation Y or millennials, (born between 1981 and 1994/6, who value action words) and generation Z (who value clear direction) who comprise the majority of the workforce and entry to mid-level managerial positions, "do the right thing" needs an explanation.
In a global crisis like this, which is being compounded with other factors, what does "do the right thing" mean? How do we get over our management training and basic human instincts to explain "do the right things" so that it does not make our team nervous, delay decision-making and contribute to the failure of people and organisations?
Managing two high performing teams with an added complexity of generational diversity made me realize, after all these years, that "do the right thing" in a crisis consists of four components: practising and maintaining the highest level of integrity and honesty, mindfulness, having people at the centre of decision making, and having a purpose.
The pandemic has brought in tremendous amounts of uncertainty, and social disconnect amongst people. Enforced remote work, social distancing and isolation, wage cuts, and job insecurity have exacerbated the levels of loneliness, stress, and depression amongst many.
All unethical behaviour requires three elements to be present- opportunities, pressure and rationalisation. Unfortunately, the pandemic offers all three elements together. However, this is the time to dig deep into the meaning of integrity and maintain high standards, to recognize the potential new ethical threats this situation is generating, and to prepare the foundations for renewed business growth anchored in an appropriate culture of integrity. Integrity and honesty are like body muscle; it does not grow if one does not work out on them.
Mindfulness, in simple terms, means living in the present moment. The practice of mindful leadership, at the very basic, empowers us to manage our life as we are living them. We learn to pay attention to the moment, recognize our emotions and use them to our advantage when faced with highly stressful situations.
A mindful leader can connect to and better understand his or her own vulnerabilities during a crisis and as a result, can better relate to the vulnerabilities of the people in the team. Mindfulness builds core emotional and mental strength and opens the door to confident actions and purposeful decision-making. Leaders who practise mindfulness are able to find stability, even in uncertain times, leading to clarity of thoughts. To the young executives- "do the right thing" means to be mindful about the present moment and to be able to make connections with your inner feelings.
Decision-making amid uncertainty is not easy. With the shorter lead time and excruciating time pressure, it often results in leaders making no decision at all. The heart of resilient leadership should always be the people that surround us.
The most important thing for any young executives (or any leaders) in a crisis is to recognise the impact that uncertainty is having on the people who drive the organisation or society as a whole. With the line between workplace and family life being blurred, it is also important to understand how we manage work has a significant impact on the people in our family.
People entrusted with decision-making responsibility needs to consistently and genuinely express empathy and compassion for the human side of the upheaval. For example, acknowledging how radically their employees' personal priorities have shifted away from work to concerns like family health, accommodating extended school closures, and absorbing the human angst of life-threatening uncertainty.
We should lead by example and encourage people around us to adopt an optimistic but planned approach to whatever happens next. We understand that hard choices need to be made but let's keep those choices center around the greater good of people for now.
During the biggest global crisis in our lifetime, it was hard to make people talk about their individual purpose. However, individual purpose has always helped people to better navigate their lives and manage uncertainties. Creating links to purpose benefits individuals, companies and societies alike.
It could be vital in managing the uncertainties that lie ahead. The pandemic has been a cruel reminder for companies everywhere of how important it is to never take healthy or motivated employees for granted. Since individual purpose directly affects both health and motivation, forward-looking companies will be focusing on purpose as part of a broader effort to ensure that talent is given the priority it deserves.
These are challenging times, and people and organisations that are able to draw energy by maintaining the highest form of integrity, create collaboration through mindfulness, develop synergy by keeping people at the center of decision making and getting direction from a sense of individual purpose will weather them with more resilience and will recover better afterwards.
Asif Uddin Ahmed is the Acting Director of EMK Center, an Assistant Professor of School of Business and the Director of the MBA Program at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.