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Crisis and Leadership Character: Becoming Stronger Through Adversity

From business guru Joseph Michelli, comes the leadership lessons needed to thrive beyond the greatest business crisis in modern history.

Let me guess, you went into a 2020 with a well-developed strategic plan and business roadmap. Let me also assume COVID-19, a sub-microscopic infectious agent, roughly 1/1000 the width of a human hair, blindsided you and rendered your plan and roadmap irrelevant. You probably also increased your use of words and phrases like “unprecedented,” “pivot,” “new normal,” and “Zoom fatigue.”

As the pandemic was taking hold, I began observing and talking with my clients (mostly C-suite level leaders in Fortune 500 companies) about their efforts to take care of their people, their customers, and their business’s sustainability. In short order, I had spoken to more than 140 plus senior leaders from for-profit, nonprofit, and public safety organizations. These individuals candidly shared fears, insights, and strategies they were using to move through uncertainty with the hope of positioning themselves for a “better than normal/post-COVID” world. These individuals included:

  • American Red Cross – President and CEO, Gail McGovern
  • Farmers Insurance – CEO, Jeff Dailey
  • Goodwill Industries International – President and CEO, Steven Preston
  • H&R Block – CEO, Jeffrey Jones
  • Kohls – CEO, Michelle Gass
  • Logitech – CEO, Bracken Darrell
  • Marriott Group – President Consumer Operations, Stephanie Linnartz
  • Microsoft – President Enterprise Commercial, Matt Renner
  • PGA of America – President, Suzy Whaley
  • Raymond James and Associates – President & CEO, Tash Elwyn
  • Smartsheet – CEO, Mark Mader
  • Target – CEO, Brian Cornell
  • Verizon – Chairman & CEO, Hans Vestberg
  • YMCA of the USA – President and CEO, Kevin Washington

My conversations with these leaders resulted in a book titled Stronger Through Adversity.  

Here are just a few insights shared in Stronger Through Adversity.

1)    John Donne was right, no individual is an island – In the pandemic, effective leaders reached out to peers and even competitors to share ideas and best practices for maintaining short-term and long-term viability

2)    The humble and authentic prevail – With social distancing, technology-mediated customer interactions, and team members working remotely, many leaders found themselves becoming more transparent and authentic in their interactions. They were more inclined to admit what they did not know, acknowledge shortcomings, and bring more of their humanity to work.

3)    You can communicate too much (but you probably aren’t) – Teams need regular communication, honest information, and a tone of realistic optimism during crises. They also are bombarded with conjecture and misinformation, so each message should be thoughtful, purposeful, and congruent with other leadership communications.

4)    Listen twice as much as you speak – Leaders emphasized the heightened importance of formal and informal listening (e.g., pulse surveys, consumer research, group brainstorming, and one-to-one conversations).

5)    Seek understanding and empathy – For successful crisis leaders, listening occurred on two levels:  active listening to gain understanding (e.g., paraphrasing) and  hypothesizing about the feelings behind the words. (e.g., empathizing).

6)    Crisis uncovers the character of heroes – Many leaders saw COVID as an opportunity to forge a legacy of lasting impact. This perspective is captured in a letter written by former first lady Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams. She shared, “When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life, and form the character of the hero.”

What lessons have you affirmed or learned during the pandemic? How have those learnings positioned you for success during and after COVID? More importantly, has your heart been animated? Are you awakening qualities that lay dormant and are you forging your character such that you are stronger through adversity?

If you’d like to learn more about Stronger Through Adversity, please visit

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Crisis and Leadership Character: Becoming Stronger Through Adversity

Joseph A. Michelli is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant. His books include The Starbucks Experience, The New Gold Standard, The Zappos Experience, Leading the Starbucks Way, and Prescription for Excellence, which hit #1 on The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestseller lists.