When COVID took hold and forced us all into lockdown, as a leader, I knew I had much work to do. Yet, like everyone, I had many many more questions than answers. I had a sense of acute uncertainty—which for me at times took the form of deep anxiety and worry. While experiencing all of this as a person and realizing it was perfectly natural given the circumstances—“feeling the feels” so to speak—I also felt the pressure of needing to show up, lead the team and make consequential decisions in my role as CEO of a global educational training institute. And what I learned was that these two things—authentically feeling difficult emotions and driving forward with vision and energy—can happen together. In fact, such times of massive disruption offer an opportunity as a leader to hone just this, the practice of navigating complex and conflicting circumstances.
For context: our business was severely affected by COVID. The business model we were operating at the time was built largely on delivering live, in-person trainings in a wide array of organizations and communities around the world. This work was led by an extensive global network of highly qualified, certified teachers and partners across scores of countries. Practically overnight, the vast majority of our engagements were canceled for the foreseeable future. As things played out, almost all of our revenue for two whole quarters disappeared. It was also evident that clear thinking, forward vision and decisive action were needed. Our challenge was to ensure we could stabilize the business, meet the moment by offering tools that could be of service to our stakeholders and plan for future success and business continuity given the massively changed ecosystem in which we were operating. But before all of that—and to be perfectly honest here—the question I found myself confronting was, “how to be the leader of an enterprise in the midst of turmoil when I was feeling pretty terrible myself?”
Fortunately, I was able to draw on a deeply talented, dedicated and cohesive team; the support of family and friends; and, importantly, the experience of daily practice of the very things we teach at the institute—mindfulness, meditation, compassion, emotional intelligence, resilience and renewal skills. All of this was central to helping me and the team at SIYLI navigate the challenges presented by COVID. I’m happy to say that today our business has stabilized and is thriving again. So I thought it might be helpful to share from the perspective of a leader exactly what practices helped me and the team navigate the past year of the COVID pandemic.
The key leadership lessons from this time can be grouped into 3 overarching domains: leading self, leading the team and leading the work. In each of these domains, the following seven insights and practices were foundational in navigating the massive disruptions during this period of time:
It was evident that to show up as a leader to the team and to our stakeholders, I first had to find a way to care for myself so I was in the right mental and emotional state to lead through the crisis. I recalled a quote from the famous leadership thinker Peter Drucker who said, “your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.” So I practiced two types of personal energy management during this time: