For many CEOs, coronavirus crisis has been their finest hour; but how long can they keep this up?
Weary leaders must not revert to their natural instincts. We mustn’t, either.
It’s been some month for corporate CEOs, who have been transformed from poster children of American income inequality to American saviors-by-default — many of them forgoing pay, making no-layoff pledges, retooling their companies to help in the fight against the coronavirus, dutifully issuing mostly reliable information in homely video communications from their home offices.
For people familiar with the way CEOs normally communicate, most remarkable (and even unsettling) over the last month has been the humility shown by these chiefs. “None of us know how long this virus is going to last,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell on CNBC last month, after scratching the retailer’s financial guidance for the quarter. “It’s a very unique environment that none of us have seen before, and there is no playbook for how to react in this environment. We’re writing the script each and every day.”
CEOs don’t say, “I don’t know.”
These are people paid for their ability to assess market conditions, make strategy, articulate a vision and lay out a timeline.
So it didn’t come as a surprise this week when a speechwriter at a Fortune 100 company told me their CEO, who had heretofore stuck to the facts as he knew them, gave into the temptation and “went rogue and used some language none of us would recommend,” describing to employees a dreamed-up several-part recovery process that had no demonstrable association with reality.
Which of course will undercut the CEO’s crucial credibility if it hasn’t already. Especially these days, speculation smells.
And grasping at straws makes a sound. It sounds like Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, on CNBC April 2. Citing “lots of focus” from government and private companies, Solomon said, “With the resources we have, the ingenuity we have, the creativity, I’m very optimistic we’ll make progress and start to plot a path forward in the coming weeks.”
With that kind of optimism, we don’t need pessimism.
I worry we’re going to see more of these examples as CEOs, suffering from “decision fatigue” as I heard an exec describe it recently, begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel whether it’s there or not, and begin to send out news releases before they know whether it’s a train or not.
It was hard enough for CEOs to keep their knees loose and their statements liable for a few weeks. It may be impossible to keep this up for another month.
And you don’t have to be a CEO to understand why.
You just have to have a 16-year-old kid so sad she can’t look you in the eye.
Or a mirror that you can’t look in the eye.
You want to give a pep talk, as bad as you want to get one. You want desperately to say it’s going to be all right. You want to say when it’s going to be all right. And you want to say how it’s going to be all right. And — after almost a whole month of this panic, you still don’t fuckin’ have any idea.
In a company or in a family, the best you can do is discipline yourself, over and over, day after day — to listen to the people around you. To thoughtfully deliberate. To not lash out in your inner fury and damage fragile relationships that can’t be repaired in an environment like this. And to try to do the right thing the best you can determine it, in the faith that clarity will one day come.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. But it’s what we all—CEOs and all leaders—and everyone who supports them and follows them or just stands by and watches them—it’s what we all must do.
I have a friend who’s a corporate attorney for a huge organization with operations in various sectors all across this land. He spends his days in virtual meetings at the highest levels, with people running all the divisions of this organization.
“It’s restoring my faith in humanity,” my friend said.
Yes, the business heads and the bean counters are biased toward keeping the operations humming if safety standards can possibly allow it— partly, because some of these operations keep crucial national supply chains moving.
And yes, the HR people and the safety people are erring on the side of early shutdowns (the lawyer too, as lawsuits stemming from COVID-19 exposure will undoubtedly be “the new asbestos” for corporations for years to come).
But by and large, my attorney friend said, he’s never seen more high-level executives earnestly “really listening to each other,” thoughtfully deliberating and mutually determined to come to the conclusion that allows them to “do the right thing.”
How long can these leaders keep this up? How long can we?
As long as we must.
David Murray is executive director of the Executive Communication Council and the Professional Speechwriters Association, which publish Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus, a daily newsletter for those helping leaders communicate through the crisis.