Eating the Elephant: Two insights for leaders in the time of coronavirus

Eating the Elephant: Two insights for leaders in the time of coronavirus

We’re constantly caught between extremes at the moment and there is no real middle ground.

This article sets out to share two main insights with HR and business leaders, thinking about the longer term needs of our teams through this pandemic. I’m drawing on experience from a couple of decades of working in leadership coaching as well as supporting some of the world’s largest organisations in the area of work-life blend. I’ve allowed myself to be a bit poetic and reflective in the first half, because, well, it’s like that right now. The second half has more Harvard Business Review references.

Let’s look at two areas:

Firstly, the way we seem to be living on two levels with an awkwardly absent in-between:

  1. The Elephant in the Room Secondly, how do we go about responding to this as leaders?
  2. Eating the Elephant

1. The Elephant in the Room

Something seems to be universal now, whether we’re working on the frontline, working from home as best we can in these ‘care-free’ times (i.e. without childcare!), furloughed, or indeed newly jobless: we are constantly, and painfully, operating on two levels:

· Mode One: Keep going, day-to-day, place one foot in front of the other; keep calm and carry on.

· Mode Two: Shocked and completely floored by what has happened, that it happened so globally and so fast, that it’s hard to see the end. Full of grief, loss, depression, flat-out fear and anxiety.

Quite often this second Mode is blotted out; otherwise we could not function at all in Mode One.

Most conversations – Zooming with colleagues, reconnecting with old friends by phone, or chatting through perspex with brave shop workers – seem to bridge across awkwardly from one mode to the other.

“Yeah, it’s awful, shocking. Must be terrible for the NHS… But, yeah, well, y’know, we’re doing OK, bearing up. Sun’s out; which is nice.”

We know completely that the second half of the sentence does not balance out the first, but there is no other available conversational gambit. Perhaps it’s because we know many have it worse than we do; or it’s all just too obvious to dwell on. It’s not really an elephant in the room because we do keep mentioning it, but we also have to keep moving on from it too. The weather is a good way out. Many conversations also get round to discussing supplies of alcohol, with a chuckle, or novel mixers that have been discovered to be quite pleasant, when the tonic ran out – with apologies here to friends observing Ramadan who are not of course discussing alcohol, but perhaps talking instead about missing being able to have a more sociable daily Iftar. Either way, the conversation often involves holding two extremes – the unfathomable and the mundane – and swinging between them.

To the question: “How are you doing?”, the right answer is generally: “Up and down”. Are we talking enough about the awkward in-between or are we changing the subject too soon?

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

He then went on to write a revealing series of three articles about his mental breakdown (The Crack-Up) and his conclusion that his only viable way forward from his crash was to operate with an almost sociopathic lack of regard for the expectations of others. The quote had continued “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” He was, however, admitting defeat. It’s a difficult read in several ways; though the quote is helpful.

The situation now is not hopeless; but it is highly uncertain, strange and challenging and it’s difficult to hold that knowledge at the same time as just carrying on. Many have a lot to do. Some are utterly full-on (including all those wonderful, courageous front-line workers), many are busy working from home with very new demands, many are also extra busy making vaguely meaningful efforts at ‘home schooling’. Some – by contrast – are ‘keeping busy’: busy enough not to feel disappointed that we are not somehow doing more. Zoe Lyons, reflecting that she always imagined that with more time she would bash out a couple of novels or a multi-layered folk ballad or knit a landscape in the style of the Flemish School, reluctantly realises: “it was not time I was lacking, but rather talent and discipline”. Whatever our version of busy it runs against a backdrop of bizarre.

One thing making it bearable is that we think of this as a phase, and we encourage each other to keep going; even if we’re not quite sure how to deal with it, or even how to talk about it. BBC Radio 4 presenters are reading a poem every day during the Today programme as part of their human response. One of my all-time top 10 poems – Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken – made the list the other day. Poignant words, though right now, many of us as individuals and leaders feel we can’t even take any definite road, never mind choose between two at a fork. Perhaps that’s the oddest thing: the sense that being able to make decisions for ourselves is off the table. So we carry on.

Between modes one and two, between the keeping on and the suppressed freaking out, is there a middle way? Some kind of mindfulness practice can be a sanity-saver to acknowledge what is there, without judgement, instead of batting it away; to deliberately occupy the space in between the shock and the carrying on. That, or just talking a bit more. My husband and I have a daily discipline at the moment of spending some time every morning in what you might call reflection, meditation or prayer. I feel vulnerable telling you this, by that way, and not in any way self-congratulatory. We did not have this daily luxury together before Lockdown and it feels very important now. It connects us – at the very least – with the lives and perspectives of others, in a very humbling way. It lifts us beyond ourselves and often also helps us think about what else we could do, practically, to help. Sometimes we end up with tears streaming down our cheeks. The other morning my husband, shrugging as we each wiped our faces, said “well there’s a lot of that built up and not much other place to express it”. Somehow, individually and collectively we need to find ways of acknowledging that and paying attention to it. Sometimes, we need to stay with the in-between; reflecting by ourselves and talking together about our disappointments and dreams, even though we’re embarrassed because we all know there are others worse off. We don’t just need to change the subject.

Whenever the New Normal begins to open up, we will be carrying this with us, and not in an energised spirit of relief as might be released at the end of a conflict, because the enemy – Boris Johnson’s ‘invisible mugger’ – will still be there too, so it won’t simply feel like moving on.

2. Eating the Elephant

So, as leaders, how do we respond to this psychological overload (in amongst all the other challenges), as we begin to formulate our New Normal? These will be some important aspects:

A. Agility in Leadership Style

B. Triple Bottom Line

C. Challenge to the norms

  1. Agility:

    As Leaders, we will need to be agile. There will not be just one style of leadership to fit all phases of this phenomenon. And we will need to work on multiple levels at the same time; in a previous article, I looked at the need to consider the practical set-up as well as the people side. The practical side is huge; here we’re staying more with the people.

    Let’s take a brief look at one helpful model here: the Cynefin framework - helps us to identify the context and lead in a way that suits the context.

    David Snowden and Mary Boone’s seminal HBR article points out “All too often, managers rely on common leadership approaches that work well in one set of circumstances but fall short in others. Why do these approaches fail even when logic indicates they should prevail? The answer lies in a fundamental assumption of organizational theory and practice: that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world”.

    The cynefin framework uses a Welsh word and concept (pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’) – referring to the way sheep and other animals stick to their territories and pathways – to raise our awareness that new contexts require new management approaches. It sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts (defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect): Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disorder. Insights here include that – in complex situations – we need to look for patterns, and to experiment, rather than hoping to identify one clear ‘best practice’: command-and-control is not an option. And – in times of chaos – we need to act decisively at first to establish order in a crisis, but then we should make sure we nurture novel and creative responses that emerge as well. Snowden and Boone urge us: “One excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: The minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue. At the same time, pick out a separate team and focus its members on the opportunities for doing things differently. If you wait until the crisis is over, the chance will be gone.”

    Innovation could be quite wide-ranging: for some the obvious emerging solution to CoVid and social distancing is automation and AI. For others, it is working from home with novel networks for social support. All options should probably be considered with a very open mind.

    We’ve been coming to terms with leading in a state of flux for a while. The term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is not new. It is signal for “awareness and readiness” coined by the US Military in 1987, in the post Cold War era, drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. Organisational leaders have nodded to our VUCA world on a regular basis since then, long before CoViD. Now, even though we are a bit exhausted and also more uncertain than ever, it is time to ask – repeatedly – whether the style of leadership we used last week will still be the right one next week.

    While I’ve always enjoyed the cheeky concept of the elephant in the room, I’m less fond of the expression that in order to eat an elephant, we need to tackle it ‘one bite at a time’. However, the metaphor serves here by reminding us that eating this elephant one bite at a time will involve pausing to ask ourselves at different phases who we need to be as leaders, and being willing to refocus.

  2. Triple bottom line:

    We will also need to be thinking beyond P&L. In 1994, John Elkington’s three Ps bottom line urged businesses to measure and report impact in a fuller way, not only recording monetary Profit but also cost or contribution in terms of People and Planet. Certainly, a helpful concept, now fairly widely adopted. However, as a relentless innovator, and sustainability advocate, Elkington declared in 2018 that he wanted to challenge and rethink his own concept:

    “...poor management systems can jeopardize lives in the air, at sea, on roads or in hospitals. They can also put entire businesses and sectors at risk.

    With this in mind, I’m volunteering to carry out a management concept recall: with 2019 marking the 25th anniversary of the “triple bottom line,” a term I coined in 1994, I propose a strategic recall to do some fine tuning.”

    On the face of it an outstanding feat of humblebrag as he unpicks and criticises his triple bottom line, yet actually a highly strategic and necessary reminder. We are not, after all, invited simply to keep an eye on how much we deplete and plunder human and planetary resources, but to do business in a way that serves to enhance and sustain these.

    If Profit itself now feels terribly precarious in the time of Coronavirus, we still need to lift our sights and think about People and Planet.

    Almost every day now we are seeing ‘greater good’ behaviour in response to CoViD. A couple of examples include:

    · Burberry, where, the Guardian reports: “Marco Gobbetti, the luxury retailer’s chief executive, said he and the rest of the board of directors were taking a 20% reduction in their base salary and fees between April and June. The money will be donated to the Burberry Foundation Covid-19 Community Fund, to help support communities struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic by supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) and food banks.

    · BT, whose commitment to diversity and inclusion led to a guarantee that the law firm on their legal panel with the best D&I record will automatically be reappointed. The Law Gazette reports: “Dave Hart, BT’s transformation director, said multiple factors go into picking the panellists, including pricing. ‘We would look at things like expertise, experience, culture, approach to innovation, and diversity and inclusion’. As an ‘added incentive’, Hart said the firm with the best diversity and inclusion record across all levels – partners, associates and trainees – ‘will automatically be offered a slot on the next panel’.

    How we deal with people now and what we contribute more broadly as businesses, will be remembered. And the time that people remember this will go on even longer than the lockdown.

  3. Challenge to the norms:

In the same previous article mentioned above, I described the team members who will eventually face the New Normal as the ‘Tired Troops’ and the ‘Furloughed Forlorn’. Whether our teams have carried on bravely in work with bigger workloads (and the guilt of being the ‘survivors’), or have dealt with the sudden, then sustained, uncertainty of furlough; either way, something is different about how we relate to each other now. At a simple level, we’ve seen our colleagues’ kitchens, their back bedrooms, their laundry-airers, their lockdown hair, their desperately patient children. Isn’t it hard now to call people Human Resources. These are real people with very real lives and they/we have all been through something of an existential crisis together, in an age that already challenged received wisdom and authority.

Let’s not forget that for the last 20 years we’ve lived in a post-9/11 world. And across the last decade or so, most institutions and authorities have been severely challenged, shaken up and sometimes reformed – Parliament, industry and commerce (remember 2007?), Geopolitical alliances (remember Brexit, and so much else?), Royal Family, church, police, prisons, politicians, the press and media; I could go on. It’s not as though we weren’t already a bit sceptical before all this. All sorts of traditions were in question. One entertaining (and also practical) article from 2019 shows how the relatively insignificant topic of business dress code was already much changed. Now the question is less whether we should still dress like Ally McBeal but rather whether it’s necessary to dress at all: pyjamas and a dark jacket, anyone?

Out of an existing state of flux, now everything has come into question, at a much more basic level for each of us, and collectively: health, finances, the economy, daily routines, the meaning of work.

These are the people we’ll be managing in the New Normal. We’d better get ready for people to bring their whole selves to work, even if we might all be wearing masks.

*Image Credit: Banksy's controversial painted elephant, shared by Dunk on Flickr under a creative commons licence*


Jennifer Liston-Smith

Published 27th April 2020.