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McKinsey is in the forefront of thought leaders worldwide. During COVID19, McKinsey’s has collected information and generated ideas daily. The sum total of their effort is huge quantitatively and qualitatively. I am sharing here excerpts from a June 12 podcast discussion with three retired army commanders. It is a 42 minutes long podcast which says a lot.  I have edited heavily to keep just the spirit of main points. Please follow the link below to listen to the full podcast.


About the Participants

Michael B. Donley is a former secretary of the US Air Force. C. Robert Kehler is a retired US Air Force general. Eric Olson is a retired US Navy admiral. Yuval Atsmon is a senior partner in McKinsey’s London office.

Do you think the analogy with war is apt?

The demands it places on leaders are very much like wartime demands in terms of the need to articulate objectives and priorities and rally the public behind them. On the other hand, there are significant differences between a war and a global pandemic. Maybe most important, a war is a clash between human beings, and this enemy does not react in a human way. It has no fear. It has no passion. Factors that influence a human enemy have no effect on COVID-19. It doesn’t get deterred by anything we do. And it is not going to surrender.

The CEO in this context is very much like a commander, and the C-suite staff are like the headquarters staff in a military. In the military, many teams support frontline fighters. Teamwork across the full capabilities of a corporate staff is vital to keeping the leadership team informed to formulate and execute decisions. And you need to use all of the tools in the toolbox.

What military practices would apply to this situation?

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld used to talk about the knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. I think we are in the realm of the unknown unknowns. There is no doctrine or master plan that applies to this.

It is very important that leaders communicate clearly and authentically. They will have to be more comfortable with flattened organizations, but delegating effectively and leading a more empowered organization requires a level of trust that may not exist in many organizations now. Leaders also have to be more tolerant of mistakes that will inevitably occur amid a lack of knowledge. And they will have to apply more imagination in problem solving. The solutions to this crisis will be outside of most leaders’ experience, so leaders will need to have bigger ears to hear more—and more diverse—approaches.

Leaders have to be flexible in much more uncomfortable ways than they have ever had to be in the past. You have to be uncomfortable in the amount of delegation that you are willing to do.

An old mentor of mine used to say, “When the map differs from the terrain, you’ve got to go with the terrain.” That makes many corporate leaders uncomfortable. People will have to adjust to the terrain as they walk it.

You all mentioned the need for empowerment and the ability to respond to new information. How do you make sure you have the right information?

Part of this challenge is the necessity of making decisions without complete information. Facts change, things become clearer, some things become less clear, but you put yourself in an iterative decision-making process in which you can make course corrections in an incremental way.

C-suites face an interesting dilemma. They are accustomed to operating in a highly competitive environment, and yet success in this environment is going to depend on sharing. CEOs and corporate leaders will have to be comfortable with getting information from different sources than before and sharing their information in return.

There is a significant amount of change awaiting us on the other side of this crisis. While we don’t know exactly what it will be and how fast economies will recover, executives nevertheless need to plan ahead for that period. Planning across multiple horizons is, again, something military command faces regularly. What can executives learn from that?

It is not enough to win the war if you are not prepared for the peace you hope to create. Balancing the urgent and the temporary with the important and the enduring is a real challenge. I would make the analogy to the C-suite needing to balance the time given to business development and existing operations.

Based on my past five or so years of seeing board and industry activities from a different perspective than when I was wearing a uniform, a couple of things jump out at me. One is, we are not saying enough that this crisis will eventually end. There will be an “after” after this. Executives need to be careful about the assumptions they make about what things look like afterward and, if they do make assumptions, give them a thorough vetting.

 How do you know when you need to give something more analysis and when you need to take action?

In my experience, part of the calculus is an assessment of the impact of inaction. If inaction impedes progress, then it is important to move forward, even though you don’t have perfect information. Something that is blocking progress—a weak player on your staff, somebody implicated in wrongdoing—needs to be moved to the side so you can objectively assess the situation.

Every decision carries some risk. I believe that all risk that needs to be taken should be taken, and no risk that does not need to be taken should be taken. In other words, the right time to make a decision is when it needs to be made.

I think you have to be decisive but not reckless. Here, the wartime analogy does not hold up. George Patton famously used to talk about the value of audacity in a commander. I don’t think there is any value in being audacious during a global pandemic. Maybe you can be audacious pursuing vaccine clinical trials, but mere decisiveness is not a virtue here. It is being able to make good decisions and understanding the art of command.

What do you see as the most important things leaders need to get right during this period?

This is an opportunity for leaders to understand the character and abilities of their subordinates to operate under pressure. Often, we try to inject pressure where not enough of it naturally exists just to see how leaders respond. Here, we have it on an extraordinary scale. I would urge leaders to create teams, put people in leadership positions, and then carefully watch how they respond so that the organization comes out stronger on the other side.

I would echo the importance of character-based leadership at every level. This crisis is also showing the critical importance of leaders who can not only communicate effectively but also remain in control, first of all of themselves. They are calm. Attributes that allow a leader to rise to the occasion under great stress don’t begin when the great stress arrives; they have to be there before.

I think the right word for this is empathy. In addition to the need to keep information flowing, you need to infuse it with empathy, to share in the struggle, to recognize the scope of the effort going into crisis response and the sacrifices individuals are making. You need to share in the losses and sad news that sometimes comes and recognize successes, no matter how small, amid the turbulence and uncertainty.

A leader needs to be clear in the purpose and align the workforce around that purpose so that everybody is pulling their oars in the same direction. Survey after survey shows that the most respected leadership qualities are integrity and tenacity. People need to know that the leader is telling them the truth and believe the leader will be there to see them through the crisis. Part of that is sharing facts as they emerge and stopping rumors.

A leader has to be visible. Culture and morale and standards all depend on the leader, and none of those can be sacrificed in a crisis. A culture left untended will go someplace the leader does not want it to go, and once it does, it’s impossible to get back.


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