Coronavirus – Leading EHS During Crisis

Have your priorities as an EHS leader changed during the current Coronavirus crisis?

Organizations are experiencing an unprecedented situation. Now more than ever, EHS professionals can help lead their organizations through the crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve spent all my time working as an EHS professional in local and corporate level positions, determined to improve business processes and performance. Throughout my career, I’ve noticed one consistent theme: organizations optimize their efforts when they provide robust and well-balanced leadership.

This means that they do not focus on a single factor but consider the work system, employee capability and capacity, how the organization is led, and the management system. During times of crisis such as what we’re now experiencing with Coronavirus, it is vital to lead your organization more effectively.

Simply, the dividing line between managing things and leading them is measured by the ability to affect others with a sense of purpose and urgency.

Attributes of Leadership

How many leadership attributes do you need to be successful? A fair assumption is that a successful leader has many in varying degrees of understanding and execution. 

Often, leadership is pursued with time and opportunity and honed sharp during a time of great complexity and showed best during a crisis.  You may have heard that “leaders are not born, but are made.” Maybe now more than ever, it is prudent to map out what may be your expected encounters over the next weeks and months ahead and reflect on the type of leadership you can extend in your organization.  

As I think about the current COVID-19 crisis and about our role as EHS professionals, five key attributes come to mind that may be helpful to consider going forward.

What Type of Leader Are You?

The Visionary Leader

The Visionary Leader is a leader, even amid a crisis, who focuses on transformational change. There is a difference between a visionary, a vision, and a visionary leader. 

  1. A visionary is someone that sees the future and can articulate it with great inspiration.
  2. A vision is taking what one sees and crafts a message into simple language that gives direction.
  3. A visionary leader is a combination of both.

At this moment in time, this leader understands that there will be an end to the crisis and recasts a vision with specific strategies, achievable goals, and actions. You may need to change your current vision and strategic plan because of the challenges of COVID-19 and the threat of Coronavirus in the workplace. However, it still should still be the goal to increase organizational energy to reach goals and objectives.

The Supportive Leader

The Supportive Leader is a leader who understands the power of the collective whole. This type of leader focuses on the idea that when there are differing levels of organizational competency and capacity, some people will have a level of unwillingness to connect, and that will need your attention. 

There will be outliers. Author Malcolm Gladwell defined an outlier as “one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs.” With this thinking in mind, you can be sure that there’s a significant probability you have outliers in our organizations in two distinct groups, both positive and negative.

A positive outlier is an employee who produces and goes above the expectations to meet what is needed. A negative outlier, on the other hand, is an organizational challenge. In a crisis, he or she will disrupt work collaboration and pay little attention to the organization’s values, its vision, or its goals for success.

The danger of allowing negative outliers is that it fosters acceptance within the organization. To combat the problem, take the initiative to support and leverage involvement from everyone to own part of the EHS process. Supportive leadership is the ability to gain active participation from all members within the work system and in a positive way.

The Affiliative Leader

The Affiliative Leader has the ability to bring groups of people together when team building is essential. This style of leadership is rarely used alone and in many cases, is associated with a supportive leadership attribute, focusing on the ability to leverage collaboration and teamwork. Think about it as working within teams of people to build interdependence.

When an interdependent culture is nurtured, employees view safety and the environment as a critical part of their role, not an adjunct to it. They see themselves as the driving force behind program success. A crucial skill for the EHS professional is his or her ability to bring people together, especially in times of crisis.

The Command Leader

The Command Leader is a leadership style that we rarely talk about, but it is a critical attribute. Command leadership comes from an old military model and assumes that people need to be told what to do. Granted, most of us simply don’t like this style of leadership, but in a crisis, it may be necessary. 

The current Coronavirus crisis could result in EHS professionals suddenly thrust to the forefront regardless of the incident management structure because we may know more. Though more restrained than the military view of command and control, owning and effectively communicating with confidence is paramount to success, especially during crises. 

The Competent Leader

The Competent Leader is the foundation for the rest of the leadership styles. Competence alone cannot make a leader, but it can undo one. 

Expertise does not mean that a leader knows it all or even how to do it all but he or she does know how to get things done. A competent leader knows their own strengths and weaknesses and will move to fill the gaps to build competence. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s studying the facts, protection requirements, and working to ease organizational impacts that protect the business and its people. 

Lead with Confidence

Socrates said, “The one who clearly knows best what ought to be done would most easily gain the obedience of others.” Given how I think as an EHS professional, people follow who they have confidence in leading them.

Your organization probably is in an emotional and physical place that you’ve never experienced.  So what is needed now more than ever, is an organization led with genuine and strong leadership. Regardless of your level or position as an EHS professional, we are asked to lead from the front line to the boardroom.

Irrespective of your responsibilities, you have a tremendous opportunity to influence the organization. After many years of working as an EHS professional, I cannot imagine not having these five attributes in my wheelhouse. It is not merely the “doing” that defines our worth, but also it is what we know, combined with thinking, aligning, developing, and inspiring. 

It is leadership in action.

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About Scott Gaddis

Scott Gaddis leads the integration of the Intelex EHSQ Alliance in thought leadership and building partnerships with top influencers in EHS, working with professionals across the globe to deliver a platform for sharing information and collectively driving solutions that mitigate workplace loss. Scott has more than 25 years in EHS leadership experience in heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and packaging. Before joining Intelex, Scott served as Vice President, EHS for Coveris High Performance Packaging, Executive Director of EHS at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Global Leader for Occupational Safety and Health at Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

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