• Karl Schmieder

Love, Storytelling and Leadership In the Time of Pandemics

You would probably guess that it's easy to tell a story when times are good. The biggest challenge then is that everyone else is telling a good story. When there's a crisis and the world's been turned upside down, that's when leaders and their stories matter most. Here's why:

COVID19 and its effects on the economy have everyone terrified. Everyone is looking for someone to calm them down. As a leader, you can do that. Right now, in the midst of the pandemic we're witnessing different management and communications styles play out in real time.

Since I'm living in New York, I'm paying close attention to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Like most New Yorkers, I have a love-hate relationship with our Governor - he invested $600 million for the life sciences, but neglected New York City's transportation needs. I've come to admire the guy and his morning COVID-19 briefings. 

Governor Cuomo is following a script (which itself is reassuring). He starts with the numbers of infected, followed by an account of what the New York State government is doing. He talks about efforts to control the virus. Then, he gets personal -- often emotional. He has even admitted when he's wrong. Few leaders do that but those that to, I believe, win admiration because they show they are human.

Last week, The Economist suggested how leaders should lead in a crisis.

A leader has to serve several audiences: employees, customers, investors and suppliers, vendors. You need to assure everyone that you're doing what is right to keep people safe.

If you're in biotech, you might want the world to know that you're keeping your employees safe, that you're helping combat COVID19, while planning for success in the post-pandemic world. 

The Economist article references a 2006 report by the National Defence University titled Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organization Through a Pandemic. A few key take-aways include:

  • Nothing is more important than the manner in which information is passed in the workforce.

  • Keeping the workforce informed will help reduce the level of fear and anxiety... handling communications is critical and must not only include facts, but also acknowledge universal feelings about the "prospect of loss and about relationships." 

  • During a pandemic, fear of the unknown increases anxiety. So addressing unknowns without scaring the public is essential.

  • The general public has a high level of scientific illiteracy. Communicating science is filled with uncertainty because most people do not understand the "complex, jargon."  For most people, complex health information is difficult to comprehend in a time of stress." For this reason, look for ways to simplify your messages.

  • "The news media are interested in conflict and sensationalistic stories. The opportunity for leaders is to communicate about the things that people care about.

The article is very long but worth reading, especially if you're at a large organization. It includes tips for writing a crisis communications plan (which I'll explore in future newsletters) and numerous resources.

I know it might feel overwhelming to consider creating a plan while working through the pandemic, but at least consider how you are telling your story now, how you're reassuring your team, and how your story will evolve as the world changes.


*** You may be seeing people referencing Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 1985 story about forlorn lovers, Love in the Time of Cholera. My review is here.