How Has Your Leadership Brand Weathered the Pandemic?

By Joseph A. Michelli

What will customers and team members say about your brand when they look back on 2020? What will they say about you as a leader? I started posing those questions to my clients back in February and collected some rather insightful answers.

Like many leaders with whom I’ve worked, I had a very different plan back in January of 2020. However, consistent with a quote from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For most of us, that mouth punch was the ultimate test of our brand promise’s congruence and our brand experience.

Coming into the year, I was hoping my brand would be known, in part, for a book I was writing about my client GODIVA Chocolatier. I was under contract with McGraw-Hill to share the story of how leaders at a 95-year-old chocolate company sought to expand their global footprint, enhance their product offerings, and build new delivery platforms (e.g., launching GODIVA cafes to complement their retail stores). GODIVA’s leaders were seeking to do all of that in the context of a brand that “opened people’s eyes to a more wonderful world.” As you might expect, COVID-19 derailed my book plans as leaders at GODIVA became laser-focused on the urgency of the moment.

With the GODIVA book research paused and most of my energy going into my role on COVID-19 taskforces for other clients, I decided to reach out to leaders in my network and ask how they were managing their brands through the pandemic. After a few of those calls, I realized leaders wanted to talk and needed someone to listen. Their insights also inspired me.

Within weeks, I pitched and had the concept for Stronger Through Adversity accepted by the publication board at McGraw-Hill. I engaged in over 140 conversations with remarkable business, nonprofit, and public safety leaders during the next few months. CEOs and Presidents of companies like Target, Verizon, Kohl’s, Microsoft, Farmers Insurance, Dairy Queen, Mercedes-Benz, Zappos, United Way, Salvation Army, and so many more kindly took time to talk about the lessons they were learning or affirming during the pandemic. I captured these conversations in my new book, Stronger Through Adversity.

As you reflect on your pandemic-tested corporate and personal leadership brand in 2020, here are three takeaways to consider from Stronger Through Adversity:

  • Will your people say, “you put your mask on first” and encouraged them to do the same? The leaders I spoke with had to consciously lead themselves first to steward their people and their organizations effectively. Self-care became paramount. As the airline safety briefing indicates, leaders had to put their oxygen masks on first to lead those around them. Acts of self-care (as difficult as they were to muster) not only helped the leader but also modeled the importance of self-care for team members.
  • Did you admit what you didn’t know and acknowledge your shortcomings? In a time when so much is unknown or unknowable, leaders found power in saying, “I don’t know, how might we find that information?” and “I made a mistake, how can we learn from that?” Jeff Dailey, CEO of Farmers Insurance, shared a misguided decision with his entire organization and saw a spike in employee engagement. Employees aren’t looking for leaders who maintain a pretense of perfection. They want truth, authenticity, and leaders with humility.
  • Was your messaging too infrequent, well-aligned, or cluttered? While most leaders increased communication frequency, it was possible to over-communicate and create clutter. Linda Rutherford, SVP and Chief of Communication at Southwest Airlines put it this way, “In times of crisis, people get anxious and crave information. So not only do we need to communicate more often, we had to communicate in a multi-channel way and be inclusive. At Southwest, that means engaging a variety of voices starting with our CEO.” Linda added, “If you aren’t organized, you can easily create confusion and distrust through your messaging. That distrust can escalate quickly, given how fast information changes. All communications must be aligned. Marketing, operations and your communication teams need to stay in sync as they coordinate messages to their respective groups – customers, the media, and employees. That aligned messaging is something we work on 24 hours a day. Collaboratively, we are looking at each new communication to make sure it is purposeful, well-timed, congruent, and relevant for the audience to which it is directed.”

What brand stewarding lessons will you take away from 2020? Where are your strengths and opportunities for 2021? Most importantly, how has your business and personal leadership brand weathered the pandemic, and are you positioned to be Stronger Through Adversity?

Should you be interested in exploring the insights and tools shared in Stronger Through Adversity, you can purchase it for a 40% pre-order discount here.


Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P., is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant who transfers his knowledge of exceptional business practices in ways that develop joyful and productive workplaces with a focus on customer experience. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives.