Leadership in the Time of Pandemic


Jack H. (Nick) McCall
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

Albert Camus, The Plague

I suspect for the majority of us that when we summon up most of the basic ideas of leadership, implicitly, we tend to think of one person—the leader—dealing with a group.  For those of us who practice law, even if our practice area is a small law firm or legal staff, that perception may conceptually make sense in general terms.  Indeed, we have office colleagues; we have clients; we have opposing counsel and counterparties.  Naturally, these tend to involve some sort of groupings of people.  While quite a few studies have focused on the psychological makeup of many of us as being typically more introverts than extroverts, we still, as a natural consequence of our profession, have to deal with, communicate with, and strive to influence other people.

So, how does the above hold true in a time when, as a matter of public safety, we and our fellow citizens are advised to practice social distancing—to (in an expression maybe more suited for tornado safety or active-shooter drills) shelter in place?  How does leadership work in a time when teams, offices, and colleagues are having to be dispersed?  A time when, in the face of a growing health crisis such as coronavirus, many of us cannot help but find ourselves feeling (of necessity) more alone and isolated than we may have in years?

While so many of us are having to adapt to what is often called—although sometimes it feels glib to say so—“our new normal,” there is little about this time of quarantine that feels even remotely normal.  Even for those of us who may be introverted or who are already accustomed to offsite work or occasional teleworking from home, there is something in the nature of this looming health situation that is just different.  Perhaps, it is that even though previous crises we have faced in our lifetimes, such as 9/11, did affect us, that effect was, frankly, not as directly personal on a day-to-day basis—not as directly health or life-threatening at its core to the average American.

This time, it’s different.

The scale of the infections, the speed of the spread of this contagion, and the compounding effects that are wreaking havoc on the economy from the national to the local level make comparisons to 9/11 and its after-effects or to the 2008 financial crises simply seem inapt.  This crisis feels much more existential—and to many who will be infected, it will be, quite literally.  I say that not to be callous, but to recognize that the scope of coronavirus is something that on a national level, we likely have not faced since the Great Influenza gripped America and the world from 1918 to 1919.  Bluntly, that kind of situation creates a feeling of looming menace, of fear.  Even though we are professionals and our cases still go on, our contracts and projects still demand our attention, and our clients—now, more than ever, in some cases—still need us, this is the kind of seemingly all-encompassing scenario that many of us have dreaded for years.  It is the kind of situation that psychologically can make individuals feel more isolated, cut off, and alone.

It is, in short, absolutely the time for leadership—but perhaps of a different kind.  What I’m suggesting is thoughtful leadership.

Motivating and inspiring colleagues, clients and friends from a keyboard may hardly seem heroic, but in a time of quarantine, for most of us, it may be about the only way that we will be able to (in the words of the old telephone company ad) reach out and touch someone as leaders.  An example: for those of us who lead teams, groups, offices or any collection of colleagues and clients, how helpful might it be if we simply take the time, once a week, not to convene a conference call or circulate an email or memo focusing solely on upcoming cases or work—wholly necessary though they are—but, instead, to take that time to send a message to check in with those office and team members as individuals and human beings?  Doing so can help recognize that these are not solely co-workers but people trying to navigate an incredibly stressful and harrowing time—people with children, spouses, older parents, people who are worried about the health of others, and perhaps, also worrying about the financial well-being of those loved ones, as well as that of the community groups or pro bono causes they support.

Any actions like this will not just ensure that a team remains connected during a diffused working environment, it may also help each member tamp down some of the natural fear and worry engendered by the covid-19 outbreak.  Such a simple, brief “check-in” type call or e-mail to one’s colleagues and subordinates may go far to alleviate at least a little stress, and perhaps, a little of the loneliness that even professionals can feel when isolated and dependent on solely an electronic lifeline to the outside world.

In my case, I am taking the time once a week to send my clients an e-mail featuring a photo of a steaming cup of coffee and a note to join me in a “virtual coffee hour.”  That offers my clients not just an opportunity for maybe a brief chuckle, but a chance to call me and discuss whatever is on their mind.  I plan to do this with several of my younger law colleagues who I mentor, as well.  It is a small step, but it seems to help maintain connectedness and camaraderie—and maybe serves as a sanity check too.  (And, frankly, I find that this can work equally well for my own benefit, as well as for the recipients.)

I certainly will not hazard a guess at how long we will be coping with this “new normal.”  While I pray that it may be mercifully brief, we have to be prepared that it will last more than just a few weeks.  Certainly, its consequences, both foreseeable and unforeseen, will most likely linger much longer.

In the meantime, we will likely have to try ways of inventive and inspired leadership to pull our colleagues, clients, and whoeverand whatever else we care about through this unpredictable and quite frankly, hazardous time.

The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

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