You have travel coming up. Travel or not? Get a mask for public spaces?

The news headlines talk of how coronavirus is spreading. This is a major disruption with far-reaching impacts. There are no vaccines as yet. There is ambiguity about when our city will get it. There is limited information about how to contain it. So naturally, we rush to get a mask to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Except there are no masks to be found. This creates an interesting problem of scarcity of a precious resource. There are not enough masks for all of us wanting them, but perhaps enough masks for those actually needing them. The challenge is how to allocate a precious resource.

The leadership choice for each of us is whether to prioritize our individual needs over the collective need. And this is especially important in a disruption because a disruption causes fear. Fear causes us to focus on our individual survival. We make choices based on individual survival, which actually ironically create negative outcomes for the individual.

Here is how that works for our mask allocation problem. The people who most need the masks are healthcare workers who are in close contact with sick people all day. The other group of people who most need masks are those who are actually sick because they are the ones who are spreading the virus by sneezing on everything the rest of us touch. Those of us who are healthy benefit less from getting a mask than if we had given the mask to someone who is sick. In this case if sick people don’t get masks while the healthy people get them, the healthy people are worse off.

This is a problem where the collective good would be best served if we each made a choice to prioritize the community over our individual need to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Why is this a leadership dilemma?

We face disruption in our workplaces every day. We operate in high change and ambiguity. We are asked to make conscious or unconscious choices about whether we will prioritize the collective good over our individual needs. Here are some examples:

Do I speak up on behalf of a work colleague who is being unfairly discriminated against? It might cost me because I am speaking up or rocking the boat in an environment where layoff are about to happen. But speaking up serves the collective good in that it makes for a more inclusive workplace.

Do I prioritize my own or my department’s goals over those of the team or organization overall?

Do I give someone in power honest feedback that will help them be a better leader or am I better off protecting myself and not risking their ire?

Do I spend all of my budget before the end of the year so I can justify it again next year even though what I am spending it on is not necessary? Would it be better turned over to another department or returned to the company?

Do I make decisions considering the upstream and downstream impacts of those decisions? e.g. I delay a report I’m writing to make it “perfect” and it means someone else has to work over the weekend to meet a decision deadline.

Do I consider the impact of my stress behaviors (e.g. frustration, anger, withdrawal) on my ecosystem? What does this do to their day? And their families?

Do I spend extra to reduce my carbon impact when others are not?

Do I consider the impact of my decisions on the communities in which I operate?

If we each sit down to think about it, there are many examples of how we make choices to put our own wants above the needs of the collective. Most of the time we don’t even consider the collective. These choices are often unconscious because we are moving fast trying to keep up with change.

The fact is that we live in an interconnected world. The stock markets fall globally as we recognize the impact of our supply chains in China. In today’s world we each need to recognize that we are all part of a larger ecosystem. Long-term sustainable growth for organizations requires that we carefully evaluate the collective good as well as needs of stakeholders throughout the system, precisely because our well-being is interconnected. As I write in my book Wired for Authenticity, “authentic leadership is the fullest expression of me for the benefit of We.

So, as you approach work choices today, take a pause and ask yourself “What is the ecosystem I need to consider? What choice will best serve the collective good?”

And as to the question of whether you will rush to get a mask. What choice will you make? Each choice defines who you are becoming as a leader.

A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.


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