In home offices and on living room couches, executives are grappling with what Ignite Management president Mike Watson calls the biggest leadership challenge of the 21st century — bringing workforces back into the workplace during the latest, brutal wave of COVID-19.
“People have vastly different mindsets on what the right answer is,” says Watson, a master facilitator and strategic planner. But regardless of what a company’s staff feels or what the public health risk of bringing employees back to the office is, leaders must decide. They must lead — something no one does perfectly, particularly during a global pandemic. Watson includes himself in this. Late last year, his team confronted him with accusations that he’d been insensitive to their needs.
“I thought I was doing a pretty good job,” Watson says. “I’m a leadership guru. I’m supposed to be really good at this stuff.”
He’s literally written a book on it with Ali Grovue, his partner at Ignite Management. “Rise Up: Leadership Habits for Turbulent Times. The two explore six habits of resilient leaders and how they can push teams to be their best. But as Watson discovered through personal experience, leaders are never infallible.
In a wide-ranging conversation with the Star, Watson talked about his own leadership challenges — and how business leaders need to check in with their teams.
Omicron is hitting Canada with a vengeance. Businesses are suspending operations, going virtual, replanning conferences for next year. If an executive invited you into their office and asked, ‘how do I get through this turbulent time,’ what would you tell them?
The first thing I’d do is park the strategy on how we’re going to deal with it for a minute. First off, let’s do a pulse check on how people are doing. Where are they at? If you think about our ability to tolerate stress on a scale out of 10 — under this COVID environment, society in general is walking around at a 7.5. This ambient stress is extraordinarily high. Then you add Omicron to it. We thought we saw the end and then we got hit with this variant and we realized it could be 2024 before we’re out, and we’re already at a 7.5. Despair sets in, in a very real way.
We want the leader to first understand how people are feeling and really internalize how people are feeling. Then, what do they do about it? I would say there are three leadership habits that you really want to call on. The first one is how you govern yourself. The habit of optimism is absolutely essential right now. Teams will look to their leaders for signals and the signal of optimism is absolutely critical. We would then talk to the leader about how they interact with others. And there are two leadership habits that should really come to the forefront right now. The first is building trust with the team that we work with. And we build trust by demonstrating that we care and that’s asking how they’re feeling.
How are you feeling right now? Let that land, Brennan. How are you feeling right now?
I’ll be honest, I’m fine. I know things are very bad. I don’t know how often you encounter this in your line of work, but I’m the kind of person who just shrugs and carries on. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it seems to work in these times.
It’s awesome, if you’re fulfilled. If you’re the walking wounded, it’s not so awesome. If you trudge and carry on as though you’re on an assembly line, maybe not so good. That’s a different conversation. But if you’re putting your head down and persevering — that would indicate you have a high stress tolerance, and that you as an individual would have high resilience.
That reminds me of something you mentioned in the book. There’s a section in “Rise Up” on James Stockdale (a U.S. Navy aviator shot down in the Vietnam War) about his experience of being interned in a prisoner of war camp. He is asked about which prisoners didn’t make it out and he replies, ‘oh, that’s easy, the optimists.’ Because they had timelines for their release that were just dashed again and again and again.
Those who put dates on it and say ‘if we can stick it out another three months, we’ll be OK’ — that crushed them. We will find great days ahead, but we don’t know when.
How do you balance that cautious optimism expressed by Stockdale with the results-oriented mindset so many executives need to have?
I think what you’re getting at is the root cause of the great anxiety that’s out there. If we’re putting profit ahead of people, in the long term, we will falter. We as enterprises need to look at the results that we are establishing and ask if they’re realistic in this context, because strategy must be fluid. Strategy changes, quarterly, based on external factors. A strategy where we establish a series of goals and objectives based on a set of circumstances — and we are unwavering on those set of circumstances — denies reality.
Be very careful not to be dogmatic to the goals that you have set, but then don’t settle. Don’t just put your head in the sand. The business still needs to survive. When we engage with people to be more individually resilient — which then leads to collective resilience — we will work with those people to find solutions that will enable the company’s success. In fact, they will find new meaning in changing the way they did things.
You talk a lot about humility and learning from the past. What was your reaction when you first heard from your team that you weren’t doing a good job during the pandemic?
This is one of the great challenges that we see in leadership. We want to hold ourselves up as infallible. The first is to accept that we are imperfect and to receive the feedback as not a negative. It’s just a group of people giving you the opportunity to look at things a little differently. How did I feel, initially? I was pretty crushed. Then I had to step back and really look in the mirror and say ‘OK, what did I do, what might I do, and what is the path forward?’
It took removing myself from the emotional state and looking at it objectively, and then getting back into the leadership behaviours that will help get my team through this. It’s not about me. It can’t be about me. If I start reacting because my feelings are hurt, we’re going down a very, very dangerous path. If I recognize that my job is to enable people to be the best versions of themselves, then I’m going to reflect on what I’ve done and what I haven’t done. I’m going to find a way to do it differently, to enable them to be the best versions of themselves.
This is a time for active humility — any time you receive feedback, whether it’s on how you managed COVID or how you manage decisions around HR. My job as a leader is to enable my team to be the best versions of themselves. What actions will enable them to be the best versions of themselves?
What’s the most common leadership issue your clients have?
Ambient stress in the workplace is the most significant issue we see right now. Ambient stress that shows up as exhaustion. Ambient stress that shows up as short tempers. People in fight, flight or shutdown mode. The CEO will say ‘can we talk?’ And we’ll do some exploration of where their enterprise is at. What we find as we do the exploration is that this ambient stress is one of the biggest things that they’re wrestling with throughout the organization.
If you look at the Canadian corporate landscape pre-March 2020, Canadian productivity was still well below international standards. If you went, company to company, I would say they were somewhere on the continuum of comfortable to complacency to discontent. Leadership was a problem long before the pandemic. Now, we’re putting a real magnifying glass on it.
How many of the lessons that business leaders are learning during Omicron will carry on post-pandemic?
Let’s hope some of the lessons learned stick. Let’s hope that a kinder and more caring society emerges. My hope is that we are more attentive to the needs of the people around us, and to our employees. We’ve been forced to adapt. During times of mass disruption, let us not forget that they create a zone of permission for cultural change.
One of the things that has been highlighted by these turbulent times is that our leadership has to change. The way we’ve been leading is not effective in these times. We have a zone of permission to change the way we behave. And what we’ll find — I’m absolutely convinced of this — is organizations that emerge stronger than they were pre-pandemic will be the ones that embrace the change in the way they lead.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.