The Pantsless CEO

Like a duck on the water, many CEOs are able to appear smooth while in reality kicking like crazy underneath to get to their destination. Perhaps no image is more poignant than a CEO on a video chat, suit from the waist up and no pants on below the webcam. It’s an apt metaphor that goes deeper than clothing – it’s a symbol of anyone forced into a situation they weren’t entirely sure how to manage, but still aim to keep up appearances. Reality finds its way to crack through, even if no one sees it.

Memes and jokes aside about the “pantsless CEO,” we can learn a thing or two from the duck as well. In particular, taking a look at when ducks stop kicking endlessly and sit at rest. 

All the advice in the world

Lots of great advice was published in response to COVID-19, offering strategies and tips on how leaders can, well, continue to lead. Much of this advice came with a flaw, though: it offered ideas on how to keep everything the same, even though everything was different. Sure, it talked about doing things remotely instead of in-office, but it talked about the same structure of work, the same expectations, and frequently implied that it would be great advice for when things “got back to normal.”

The problem is that we aren’t sure what “normal” will be in the future.

You can hide behind a cute Zoom background, but that won’t stop you from looking around your house and wishing it was a private office. All the meeting prep in the world doesn’t take away from the realization that your business systems were only built to work when everyone is in the same room. You can dress up for a video chat but it won’t stop the pain you feel when it hits you that you’re literally trapped at home. 

As much as we want to keep a sense of normalcy, the reality is that we are in an unprecedented situation. Even as we draw comparisons to remote work, it’s clear that COVID lockdown is not real remote work, but a hollow shell version of it.

Look forward, not back

In response to the complete upending of our ways of work, we need to think of a new path forward. Even as we are able to return to offices in the coming months, the feeling is likely going to be different. 

Taking one last look at the metaphor of the duck on water, there is a moment when it stops kicking – the moment it reaches its destination. Until then, and no matter what happens, it will be kicking. 

We should take inspiration from the duck, realizing that the only way out… is through. If you want to get to a point where you don’t feel like you’re kicking endlessly to no avail, stop trying to go backward to the way things were and start looking forward at where you want to go. 

As you consider what destination you want to get to, think of it in terms of the key problems facing your business as a result of this downturn:

  • Are sales flat or down? 
  • Did you get an onslaught of customers, revealing massive cracks in your company’s ability to serve customers and scale?
  • Do you have to hire – or let people go – in response to the pandemic? 
  • Is your ability to deliver for your clients impacted?

The list goes on, but the point is that you can’t get anywhere you can’t name and you can’t rest until you’re at your destination. Even though a company may not have a single “destination” in the way a swimming duck might, you absolutely have milestones to chase or emergencies to overcome. 

At this point, you’ve already accomplished the first step to finding some peace in turbulent times: identifying the hyper-practical challenges you need to overcome. No matter which management philosophy you follow, one of the first steps, if not the first step, is good problem identification. With uncertainty in the air, strategy sessions need to be about practical realities, not lofty goals. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have lofty goals in the back of your mind, but the foreground needs to focus on where you’re kicking towards.

Once you know your destination, you can spend your time and energy focused on moving forward, not trying to go back. You’ll still be kicking like mad for some time to come, but at least with each kick you get a bit closer to where you need to be. While there may still be another wave on the horizon that might take you further from your goal, never lose sight of your destination, whatever it may be. In times of trouble, the best thing to do is keep going. 

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