In coronavirus pandemic leaders can learn these 4 thing from the military

Everyone is leading in some way, whether we know it or not.

As states across the U.S. grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic leaders across the country are desperate for a playbook that can help them make difficult business decisions and weigh employee safety against business continuity.

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As leaders think about the tough decisions ahead, they should consider a proven military approach to understand, communicate and, ultimately, act fast on make or break business decisions.


Whether you’re leading a multi-million-dollar Fortune 500, operating a small business, being a leader in your community or running your family, the same skills of ownership, resiliency, and decisiveness apply. And during this unprecedented time, everyone is leading in some way, whether we know it or not.

COVID-19 has created a world where VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) is a constant, and this new global VUCA environment is challenging leaders’ ability to understand, communicate and, ultimately, act fast on make or break business decisions. Decisive action, often in the face of extreme uncertainty, is essential for success in war—and in business. This is especially true in times of crisis like we are in today.

The four strategies listed below will help leaders to build the offensive mindset required to succeed:

1. Do your homework. To ensure you have a clear understanding of the risks involved and the external support required, leaders must take a step back and assess the current situation - and identify what you want to accomplish. The primary responsibility of a leader, especially in crises, is to point the way ahead, so it is crucial that you are able to articulate clearly to your team what you want them to accomplish and to share a suggested strategy for accomplishing it. This is the prerequisite for effective action, and in today’s VUCA world, acting is far more important than being wrong.

In today’s socially distancing environment, where people lack the in-person communication they crave, it’s never been more important to get people to listen.

2. Strong leadership is king. It’s axiomatic within the military that we should expect our plans to change and companies should, too. But how do you see the future with enough clarity to adapt to the challenges and opportunities that come at you?

This is where taking constant inventory of any situation is imperative – whether that’s implementing a new working from home policy or driving a new cultural initiative.


The best leaders are constantly questioning their plans (asking questions like “Are we doing what we said we were going to do?” and “Are we still doing the right things?”), making necessary adjustments, and looking outside their company for challenges and opportunities.

You have to look for both challenges and opportunities simultaneously because if you just look for challenges, you’ll get defensive, and won’t think with an offensive mindset.

3. Communicate with candor, frequency and empathy. In today’s socially distancing environment, where people lack the in-person communication they crave, it’s never been more important to get people to listen.

With that comes the inherent need for empathy and making people feel close to one-another amidst this uncertainty. People want to know what’s going on, yet they are being bombarded from all sides with conflicting information.

How do you get people to listen? Speaking and writing outside-in versus inside-out.

An outside-in leader listens to the needs of stakeholders from their perspective- and is able to frame simple, clear messages to the wants and needs or varying stakeholders.

In times of crisis, leaders need to hold the team together. It’s never enough to tell people ‘what’ you want them to do or ‘how’ to do it. It’s essential that you explain the ‘why’ in the context of their needs and priorities.


4. Never let a crisis go to waste. Every crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate your character, your values, your innovative spirit and your decision culture.

Case in point: Tylenol’s crisis leadership in 1982. When the brand came under attack, they quickly responded by recalling every bottle of Tylenol in the world. Their values defined their strategy. “Our first responsibility is to those who use J & J products.”

Tylenol signaled to its customers that its return to retail was based on re-earning their trust by demonstrating empathy and character. Sales went from pre-recall of 33 percent to zero during the recall to 44 percent. It is leaders like this, with strong values, that build trust. And at the end of the day, trust-driven organizations are strong organizations.

Developing an offensive mindset provides the ability to create the future you want through your actions. It confirms the axiom, “if you change the way you look at things, things that you look at change.”

Leading with this mindset enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things during very difficult times.

General George W. Casey, Jr. (ret.) served 41 years in the U.S. Army following his graduation from Georgetown University.  He is an accomplished leader and a global authority on strategic leadership. He led the Army from 2007-2011 and is widely credited with restoring balance to a war-weary Army and leading the transformation to keep it relevant in the 21st Century. Casey is currently a Distinguished Senior Lecturer of Leadership at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management as well as a teaching fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Alan Hilburg, President and CEO of Hilburg Associates, is the award-winning author of two New York Times bestsellers and an Academy Award and three-time Emmy nominated producer, but is perhaps best known for his leadership for the past 30 years as one of the world's innovators in emotional branding and helping high profile clients recover from institutional or personal trust crises.