How Leaders lead through COVID

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christopher Wiley, 86th Communications Squadron commander
  • 86th Communications Squadron

Daily life has changed in almost every way since the COVID pandemic began; however, the fundamentals of leadership have not. The common leadership pillars of communication, trust, and respect are still critical and require a little creative thinking during this very different time. I would argue they are needed even more now than ever. Thankfully, if we apply that creative thinking with technological tools, there is an opportunity for us to deepen relationships and become even more effective.

The shift in the way we communicate is arguably the most drastic change we have to overcome.  Face to face interactions have been substituted by emails, calls and other less personal forms of communication. If we can’t be physically together, then find ways to use technology as a better substitution. In many cases, and especially with younger Airmen, they’ve grown up online and may feel more comfortable sharing virtually than in person. Over time, team cohesion and collaboration will degrade if we’re not careful. Use Teams, Zoom, FaceTime, or any other tool to see and spend time with each other. 

When I first arrived, Chief Seth Quirk invited me to speak at an evening senior noncommissioned officer virtual Zoom session with your choice of adult beverage. Great idea! If you do something like that, don’t talk just about work while connecting online, find things to do like trivia or other games to sustain and improve those relationships. Regardless of what you do, find ways to talk to people at key points and let them know you care about them.  Take a moment to think about deliberate touch points with your teammates and plan regular discussions. Also, just like you would prepare before hosting a physical meeting, please test out and understand your teleworking tools before the actual discussion. If you have questions, reach out to your nearest friendly Communications Squadron Airman.

Trust is absolutely essential to leading through COVID.  Teleworking forces supervisors to trust their team.  It can be a challenge to find balance between micromanaging and ensuring the work is done.  Just like we always do, set high expectations and give your team the freedom and resources to achieve them. Hold them accountable if they’re not meeting the mark. Certain Airmen will achieve much more teleworking when they don’t have the daily distractions slowing them down. Some Airmen will do truly amazing and innovative things when they’re more relaxed at home. We recently had an Airman who brought up the communications paths to the Air Operations Center from their home using virtual private networks and administrative rights. Trust them to get the work done and to communicate what they cannot get done from home.

Respect is needed more than ever today, and it is a principle where the Air Force excels. In our limited manpower environment, we need the talent, creativity, enthusiasm, and teamwork of every Airman, every day. One way to show respect is to recognize exceptional performance. Thankfully, technology gives us a platform to do this with a broader audience. Never miss an opportunity to use it! Respect their work/life balance and be cognizant of what hours you’re asking people to be available. Do your absolute best not to email, call, or text about work issues late into the evenings or on weekends. It may seem counter to the normal telework expectations, but respect yourself and your teammates by dressing properly while teleworking. It will help you feel more focused, productive, and professional. If you don’t shave and wear sweatpants (or no pants) during working hours, over time you’ll lose confidence and your team that sees you on camera will, too.

Finally, leaders grow leaders regardless of COVID. Find out what people are passionate about personally or professionally and help them lead there. If they like playing video games, then help them run a tournament. If they like hiking outdoors, then help them connect with other hikers. If people are confident and happy doing something, they will attract other people with the same interests. COVID is a huge challenge, but also an opportunity to be creative, increase connectedness, and get more done.

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