I fell ill as COVID-19 shutdowns began. Here’s what it taught me about leadership

I fell ill as COVID-19 shutdowns began. Here’s what it taught me about leadership

By: Barbara Humpton, President and CEO, Siemens USA

Editor’s Note: To hear Barbara read this essay, visit the Siemens USA podcast. Follow “The Optimistic Outlook” wherever you get podcasts or by clicking these links to your preferred platform: iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Tune In, YouTube, Podbean


There are countless ways to learn valuable leadership lessons. Throughout my career, I’ve learned them from colleagues and mentors, and by working with a coach. I’ve learned them at training programs and one-day workshops, and particularly on the job.


Yet none of these experiences are what’s changed my perspective on leadership the most.


The pivotal moment for me actually happened when I wasn’t able to work or lead at all. 


This was a little more than a year ago as the country was shutting down – the day I fell ill. I’m not sure if it was COVID-19 or not. I’ll never know. But for the next few weeks, I was out of commission. 


As 60 percent of our workforce transitioned to full-time remote work overnight, I quarantined at home, too tired to begin that transition myself.


As our manufacturing and field services team got equipped with new personal protective gear and adopted new physical distancing protocols, I limited calls and tried to rest, hoping to recover as quickly as possible.


Then I returned – and here’s what I saw: My team had kicked into high gear. Across the organization people worked together – from HR to communications, from government affairs to legal, from IT and cyber to our environmental, health and safety teams – to solve problems and to keep us safe and strong amid uncertainty. They were relying on each other and bringing expertise to the table, adding to a body of knowledge supporting all of the businesses.


Meanwhile, our factories were humming along. The critical infrastructure we support nationwide stayed up and running. We quickly built the foundation to be on the frontlines of COVID-19 response – from supporting the construction of temporary hospitals, to assisting manufacturers with the production of critical supplies, to, today, reinventing indoor spaces to support America’s reopening.


Around this time, I got involved in a project led by Resilience Shift called the Resilient Leadership Project. Its objective was to learn about leadership during crisis by capturing real-time reflections from leaders as they addressed the challenges of the global pandemic with their teams. Twelve of us took part. Every week for 16 weeks we had individual conversations with the project facilitator, Peter Willis


I found these talks to be a shelter in the storm in which I could think through situations and possible solutions. And what I started to see and explore deeper on my podcast was the idea that it’s in moments of disruption, as things un-gel, that we get to question how we do things – from how we face a crisis to how we address racial injustice. It’s the perfect environment for change. 


I also saw that the effects of the pandemic were hyper-localized. Rather than apply global direction, we now had to embrace glocalization, trusting people who were closest to customers to make the right decisions. And it worked – unleashing creativity that’s kept our business strong throughout the pandemic.


And so, as I thought through my experience at the pandemic’s outset, here’s what struck me: 


One of the most important acts of leadership is to simply let others lead. Recognize that, especially in a crisis, people want to step up; they want to be given more responsibility. 


Siemens is now leaning into this concept. We’re working to create a company culture in which employees feel empowered to solve problems, collaborate with each other, and pursue big ideas. And we’re prioritizing what we call a growth mindset valuing curiosity and initiative – qualities that make us believe we can learn new things, do new things, and meet the challenges ahead. It’s grounded in the idea that we’re not trying to get back to how things were; we’re going forward


Our employees continue to deliver for customers – so why would we go back to five days a week in an office? Glocalization is working – so why would we go back to a model defined by command-and-control or management-by-process-circulation?


Instead, we’re embracing a working model that gives our employees the freedom to work wherever they choose two to three days a week. And we’re even rethinking what it means to be a leader. I agree with my colleague Robert Neuhauser who wrote on LinkedIn recently, “In a dynamic and complex world, THE perfect Leader is a mythical beast, at best. There’s no evidence to show that a specific leadership​ style is key to sustainable success, on the contrary: Highly diverse leadership teams, combining different styles, are​more successful in complex environments.”


That’s right – because an important part of letting others lead and empowering people is giving them permission to be themselves. It’s about tapping into our own unique strengths and capabilities to advance company priorities, then inspiring others to do the same. It’s about believing in the power of empathy. It’s about recognizing that the cornerstone to empowerment – how we make it possible for everyone to realize their full potential – is ensuring that every employee feels a deep sense of belonging as we use every available muscle to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.



I’ll leave you with this…


Recently we celebrated the retirement of someone on our communications team who had been with the company for more than 40 years. She had started in clerical roles prior to moving into print operations. By the end of her career, she was part of our digital infrastructure team designing our webpages. In other words, someone who started working before the Internet was even invented thrived late in her career as a web page designer.


And, if you ask her colleagues how she did, what you’ll hear is: she taught herself how to do it. She thrived amid change. She wasn’t afraid to let one career go and start a new one.


So, as you think about how to let others lead and empower those around you, imagine creating environments that enable curiosity and initiative to flourish.


And now, imagine your own career five, 10, 20 years into the future. Think about how much technology and business models will advance during this time, forget about what you don’t currently know, and instead, ask yourself, “How much more will I learn? Which tools available to me am I overlooking? And how can I prepare myself and my team to solve that impossible problem – even if it requires a tool that doesn’t yet exist?


That’s the growth mindset at work.


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