Leadership Lessons from COVID-19: Toilet Paper Shortage Edition


Like many of us who are fortunate to be at home while this pandemic continues, getting basics supplies continues to be a challenge. One item that continues to be elusive is toilet paper, and paper products. The massive disappearance of toilet paper from store shelves and online retailers still hasn’t been adequately addressed. As the COVID-19 began to spread, the hoarding began, and supply shortages continue. I had to shame a hoarder at a local store into letting me purchase two rolls, as he filled an entire shopping cart will every single roll the store had on the shelf.

What can we learn as leaders in times of crisis like we are currently experiencing? In the midst of every obstacle, there are opportunities.

I read a very interesting article on Fast Company recently that discussed surprising insights on emerging leadership styles as basic supplies ran out during this COVID-19 crisis.

…All leaders have to be careful not to fall prey to hoarding—even toilet paper. With hoarding, individuals adopt a “me versus everyone else” mentality, and it leaves nothing for others.

The primary role of every leader should be to be a giver and to always think about their team and others first, no matter the circumstances. Leaders have to also look for ways to give support to community efforts that address the problem and ensure everyone’s needs are met…

Fear should not drive your decisions as a leader. Your leadership decisions should be analyzed on a framework that allows you to distill your fears, and understand if the fear, and thus the risks, are legitimate, likely, fabled, or self-imposed. With this framework, you can then break though the fear and achieve goals and make an objective—not a fear-driven—decision.

Another common that issue that arises in times of crisis is handling situations when things do not go as planned, or worse, that create an unplanned mess.

These situations can definitely be high stress, but good leaders do not waste time and energy looking for some to blame. These situations bring out the best in leaders, or regretfully, the worst. As leaders, the mess should be owned, cover provided for the team, and solutions to the problem be the focus of the cleanup.

…A lot of the drive to address messes head-on comes from assuming a personal responsibility—even if you aren’t to blame. In these instances, you will see that real leaders don’t waste time with questions about who is responsible and who should address the problem. Instead, they see that there is a job to be done and focus on that first, realizing that they can always circle back on the other questions after they’ve managed to get it under control…

Bad leaders are always in CYA mode, which is not only counterproductive, but also ineffective and demoralizing to the team.

You want to set the tone through rational, thoughtful consideration of the situation. Focus on what you can control, and nothing else.

…“Most people do whatever it takes to protect themselves and their families, so I think this is part of what led to disappearing paper products. But as a leader, I’ve realized some valuable characteristics from this situation that will last for years to come, like focusing on what you can control and not worrying about what you can’t,” said Ben Ives, the CEO of RapidVisa, a leading online immigration services provider that has continued to operate during the crisis. Ives continued, “What we can control is to maintain stability and a positive attitude and provide great customer service to our customers who are counting on us. Emotions are contagious, and we should take reasonable precautions and plan for undesirable financial outcomes, but when we come out of this, how do we want to be remembered for how we conducted ourselves and led our company through this crisis? Do we want to be the voice of panic or the voice of reason?”…

Excellent advice.

With fear and panic levels high, this has led to impulsive or irrational decisions, such as people fighting over toilet paper. Good leaders understand that you need to put personal feelings of fear and panic aside, as we know those feelings make matters worse. Further, leading by fear lowers confidence in the leader, and permeates through the team. Nothing is worse than looking for leadership and seeing nothing but fear and panic.

In these situations, you need to remain calm and stay in control of your emotions. I always recommend taking a few breaths to detach from the immediate crisis, which helps to see the bigger picture and think through potential outcomes.

Crisis leadership also involves looking for creative solutions to problems. No toilet paper? How about flushable wipes? No flushable wipes? How about Kleenex? Maybe look for alternate suppliers outside of large grocery stores or Amazon. What about your local hardware store?

Good leaders understand that when ideal solutions are not an option, it’s time to get creative. There are no bad ideas, and this level of determination can help not only solve the immediate problems but provide solutions to others as well.

Leadership rises to the top in the midst of challenging and difficult circumstances. Crisis, and life itself, always has a interesting way of teaching valuable lessons, even from something as mundane as finding toilet paper. This crisis will end, as will the toilet paper shortages.

Nonetheless, the lessons of determination and resourcefulness for leaders will hopefully make them stronger, and allow for reflection to improve performance. Leaders should come out a crisis stronger, and have an even deeper foundation to weather the next storm.

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