Corporate Leadership’s New Path in the COVID-19 Crisis

by Chris Yates

The study of history is important because it enables us to see how we got to where we are today. It gives us a sense of how our ancestors made big decisions and helps us to understand how we have tackled change as a society. Through a chain of events, we learn that history repeats itself — both triumphs and grave mistakes.

The Black Death pushed across Medieval Europe in the years 1346–1353, killing 50 million people, or 60 percent of Europe’s entire population. The resultant skills shortage broke the feudal system and impacted the power of the church in that society. It freed the majority of citizens from near slavery and created the conditions for salaried workers. In many ways, the plague created a world that was unimaginable before the crisis.

In the early 20th century, two world wars and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 had a global impact, breaking the rule of European monarchs and disrupting the role of the nobility over society. It created unions, workers’ rights and motivation, and ideas about nationalized health and safety that have shaped many of our current HR practices.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us daily from all angles — health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships and more. For people working in all industries and sectors, this crisis is creating a huge amount of fear and anxiety. In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings and is causing us to question every assumption we had about the future. For leaders, this necessitates they take a closer look at the values and underlying purpose of their organizations and re-examine the way they are making decisions.

In the face of this crisis, we’ve all had to prepare in our own ways, all over the world. Some have embraced their families in new ways and others have shaken in fear. Those who could afford it have hunkered down and attempted to keep the disruption to a minimum. Some have eschewed complicated or intellectual solutions and have welcomed the comfort of scapegoats to explain world events. Others have not sought easy answers, and, instead, have used this opportunity to reflect on the complex circumstances that have led us to this place and on where we may need to go as a society in order to regroup.

But does humankind need to be faced with the prospect of culling in order to make significant societal progress? In our new book, Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power & Relationships (Bloomsbury, 2020), Linda Jingfang Cai and I make the case that we need to take a careful look at the social and environmental context of the world today and focus on developing new business models based on sharing, empathy, reciprocity and cooperation. We do not believe that humanity needs to suffer wide-scale disaster in order to adapt. Instead, we assert that the world can reset toward a more empathic approach, led by corporations putting empathy at their core.

Corporations Lead in a New Direction Now. And Later?

Recently, we’ve seen an emergent theme in how some organizations lead the charge and take action, in the absence of regulation or law. In many cases, corporations have prioritized purpose and values over profit. We’ve seen instances of companies making the decision to continue paying hourly workers, suspending bank charges, offering alternate mortgage payment arrangements, and more. With respect to making the big decisions about allowing employees to work remotely, healthcare benefits and other forms of economic relief, corporations have stepped up to be part of the bigger relief system. The decisions made by these CEOs and organizations have placed empathy at their core, sometimes at the expense of short-term profit.

Today, as I write this, the sharing world is on overdrive. Sharing platforms are emerging organically as a source of guidance during this time. Words of wisdom created by one U.K. nurse circulated the world online, and advice from citizens and consultancies have flooded organizations and social media with best practices and advice. Parents are sharing work-from-home school schedules and local communities are sharing information with neighbors. We have seen many instances in which organizations are sharing practices between each other freely, rather than maintaining a self-interested silence. Competition is being suspended out of necessity, as we have to act in an agile way. Under pressure, many of us seemed to gravitate naturally toward sharing.

But what happens when the COVID-19 crisis is over? Do we go back to the same mode of prioritizing competition over the common good? Or do we work together to build a different system that places cooperation over competition? Will we go back to business as usual, or will our values change in the context of what we’ve survived as a society?

In order to move into the next phase of work, where we help people to regroup and adapt to the “new normal,” we will need to see companies and governments continue to share. Many of the huge challenges we still face as a society, including climate change, will require a share-based culture. Organizations will need to continue putting values at the heart of their decision-making so that they can more easily navigate the dilemmas ahead in the face of an environment fused with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Chris Yates is the general manager of Learning & Development at Microsoft and is the co-author, with Linda Jingfang Cai, of Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships (Bloomsbury, 2020). Previously, he was the chief learning officer and head of People and Organizational Development for Caterpillar Inc. and has served in senior roles at HSBC and American Express. He specializes in organizational design, leadership development and the management of large-scale change initiatives. Along with Pooja Sachdev, he was the co-author of Rewire.


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