Sam Reese, CEO Vistage

This article by Vistage CEO Sam Reese was originally published on the Vistage blog. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executives of companies all over the world.

Over to Sam…


The COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges for leaders, but it also offers fresh opportunities to learn how to navigate their companies through uncharted waters. As employees accept the current crisis and adjust to new environments, routines and protocol, they look to leaders for transparency, stability and conscious decision-making.

Through coaching more than 100,000 CEOs of small to midsize businesses over 60 years, Vistage has identified 7 fundamental truths about great leadership. The following laws ensure solid decision-making through these unpredictable times and beyond: Free guide to help lead your company through challenging times.

A CEO's Guide to Leading in Challenging Times

1. Reject shortcuts to growth

Great leaders know leadership excellence is a challenging, continuous journey that requires hard work and determined attention.

Sam Reese

Great leaders know leadership excellence is a challenging, continuous journey that requires hard work and determined attention. They reject shortcuts and take ownership of their development, especially in times of crisis. They bring rigor and grit, working hard to hone their expertise and continuously improve. They recognize it is important to keep an organized rhythm of communications and work progress that will keep their businesses busy and aligned during a crisis.

2. Carve out space to work on the business

Successful leaders routinely carve out time and space away from the business to reflect, acquire new knowledge and focus on strategy. This discipline allows them to gain the clarity they need to navigate the day-to-day challenges and understand the environment outside their business. The stress of leading through a global pandemic requires a leader to pause and regroup.

3. Challenge your thinking with fresh perspectives

Great leaders seek diverse perspectives on important decisions from trusted peers. They actively work to combat insular thinking and confirmation bias. They find other CEOs and business leaders who’ve tackled similar issues but in different industries. These peers understand the nuances and challenges of the role but bring fresh perspectives, unhampered by institutional knowledge. Now more than ever, when a group of diverse leaders learn from one another, this effect is amplified. CEOs can share the real-time learnings that come from leading a company through a pandemic.

4. Stoke curiosity

World-class business leaders are high on curiosity and low on ego.

Sam Reese

World-class business leaders are high on curiosity and low on ego. They are inquisitive, welcome new ideas from trusted sources and eager to explore. Vulnerability is viewed as an asset, and they are the first to admit they don’t have all the answers. They ask questions to seek input and pressure-test their assumptions, so they can come to the best decision for the business – not to prove their own point. These trying times present the opportunity to be open to and apply new ideas.

5. Apply discipline to decision-making

High-performing leaders follow a disciplined approach to decision-making. They use a systematic process that takes into account their instincts; judgment based on experience and data; and perspectives from peers, mentors and employees. The key is to focus on what can be done today, not necessarily developing long-term strategies that may need to be changed after a crisis. Focus has to remain on mission, vision, purpose and values as the North Star. With these values as the foundation, leaders can make decisions with speed, consistency and accuracy – even under the heavy pressures of a pandemic.

High-performing leaders follow a disciplined approach to decision-making.

Sam Reese

6. Find a trusted guide

Successful leaders view a coach or mentor as a critical component to leadership excellence, especially in stressful times. They value a trusted guide who challenges their assumptions, identifies their blind spots and holds them accountable. The most effective coaches and mentors approach the CEO as a whole person, not just the leader in the corner office. Leaders who take a comprehensive approach to development that includes feedback from trusted peers, effective mentoring, and insights from subject-matter experts continuously outperform their competitors.

7. Rise by helping others

Great leaders help others think critically through their challenges and in the process fine-tune their own decision-making skills. Leaders also recognize relationships matter even more during a crisis. Whether these relationships are with coworkers, customers, suppliers, partners or investors, CEOs and decision makers help others as they remain in constant, transparent communication. Accessibility is the No. 1 quality employees look for in their leaders during a time of crisis. By staying available, you will become acutely aware of the challenges that need to be addressed and convey a sense of stability and continuity during a crisis. High-integrity leaders leave a legacy. The way you manage in a crisis like this will be a key part of the legacy you leave and an example for those who follow in your footsteps.

The coronavirus has brought disruption and caused unprecedented challenges for CEOs, but it can also inspire innovation and lead the way to a company’s future success when life returns to normal. COVID-19 shines a light on the challenges of leading through change and crisis. By using these seven laws and providing clear communication, decision makers can take effective action for their companies today and tomorrow. 

Get the Guide

If you liked this post, you will also like Why you should be in a Mastermind Group and Conor Neill’s Webinar for IESE Business School: How to Lead in Uncertain Times.

Just listening to Stuart Lancaster deliver a webinar for IIBN. He shared his path to head coach of the England rugby team, the hard blow of falling out of the home rugby world cup, and his current role as part of the leadership of Leinster rugby club.

10 Necessary Ingredients of a Great Leader

  1. Be authentic – know who you are, know what you like and don’t like, learn to manage yourself.
  2. Develop Great Communications Skills – both 1-1 and to the large groups. Learn to speak well.
  3. Create and align people to a cause – you need every member of the team to move beyond their own wants and needs and be a genuine contributor to the team… for this there needs to be a meaningful cause that is bigger than “winning”. Stuart shared how he wrote to the parents of all the england team players and asked them to share what it meant to them to see their son play rugby for england. This helped him show the players how they represented something much bigger than rugby.
  4. Develop a point of view – people do not want to be led by those without a point of view on life. Develop an opinion on the questions that are important in your field. (A blog is a great tool to develop your opinions).
  5. Be good with people – learn what moves people and how to listen. Ask good questions.
  6. Sense the “mood in the camp” – build a good “radar” and surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth.
  7. Be trustworthy “DWYSYWD” – Do What You Said You Would Do”
  8. Moral courage to do the right thing – especially when it is hard.
  9. Great body language – you are never “off stage”.
  10. Build belief and “make performance meaningful” in yourself and others – it has to be more than “just getting the win” – why will this next win be meaningful?

Loved this from Stuart…

“Always want to Improve”

Stuart Lancaster

Extreme competence + extreme open to learn = Be here 😉

This event will be streamed live on the IESE Business School Linkedin Page here: https://www.linkedin.com/school/iese-business-school/

Monday April 6th 16:00 CET

You can also follow live on youtube or on this blog post:

How to Lead in times of Great Uncertainty

What can I do personally to engage myself, my leadership team and the people throughout my organization to respond positively to this crisis?

What we will cover…

  • My Personal Experience of Leading through a Crisis (2008)
  • What is a Crisis?
    • Communicating in a Crisis
  • How will you benefit from this session?
  • What do Leaders do?
    • Clarity of Vision
    • Certainty of Action
    • Values
  • Leadership is a Choice
  • The Most Important Lesson I have learnt
    • Practice, Habits and Mindset
  • How to Shift my Mindset?
    • Where am I focussing?
  • How to Lead your people?
  • How to continue this conversation?

My friend Tony, business owner, shares his reflections on how the quarantine is impacting his life… and how he has learnt that “doing nothing” is not doing nothing… there is power in sitting still.

His big hope… that we do not return to “normal” after this.

Tony is someone who has used this quarantine period to start making videos… and I recommend you follow his youtube channel as he shares his lessons and leadership with the world.

In these difficult times, this story about the 20 Mile March is my reminder of what to focus on… and how to stay in control of my life.

I first heard this story from Jim Collins. He shares it in his book Good to Great. Here, I share my version of the story… and how it relates to leading yourself and your organisation in difficult times.

Your 20 Miles?

What are your 20 mile march habits? What are your aspirational self 20 mile march habits? What can you do in this period of quarantine to practice your 20 mile march?

In this week’s video: Two messages for leaders from day 8 of Quarantine in Barcelona:

  • Tony Anagor – the importance of sharing positive encouragement
  • Warren Rustand – leading from my own personal core
    1. Clarity of Vision
    2. Certainty of Action
    3. Values

We are on day 8 of Quarantine in Barcelona. I’ve been sharing my experiences of quarantine on youtube #1 here and #2 here. I’ll be running another YouTube livestream:

I’d love to see you connected, sharing your personal experiences, your questions, your updates with the community.

Have a great week.

These are my notes from the words of an Indian spiritual leader called Sadhguru, which I found positive, generous and calming. I had never heard of this man a few days ago… but have found his voice and his words a source of inspiration and clarity over the last 6 days.

Here’s the livestream that I am watching: Sadhguru Livestream 22 March

Being Human… in times of Crisis

When the situation is serious, you do not need to become serious. We do not choose to become frivolous, but we choose to be responsible.

When you become dead serious, you are dead before you are dead. When you lose your laugh, you lose everything. If you stop laughing you will make no difference to the progress of the virus. If you act serious, you will not stop a single infection.

Are you a Human Being or a Human Creature?

It is in these times that what kind of a human being you are matters. It matters all the time, but in normal times all sorts of fake people can pretend. It is when crisis hits that what type of human being you are really matters.

This virus is not being carried by mosquitos or rats. It is being carried by us.

Are we human beings or are we human creatures? If we are human beings we choose to take responsibility to not pass this virus on to the next person.

Human Beings are the Agents of this Virus

We are the vector of this virus. We are the agents who carry.

Many of us may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. We may think “what difference do I make?”

We could not notice it, but we could be giving it to someone who is at risk.

What type of human are you? Are you fit to be a being? A human being. The most fundamental thing is that you know how to be. You know how to choose. You know how to act intentionally.

Today, by not doing anything… you have done something great for the world.

Do Something Great: Stay Home and Do Nothing

Meditation gurus have spent thousands of years telling us to sit down, sit still and do nothing. A little virus is teaching us faster than all those hundreds and thousands of meditation gurus.

Social distancing is not building walls around us, around those close to us. It is being aware and careful of the manner of transmission of this virus.

What steps can we take to ensure the safety of our community?

  • Keep our distance – don’t be an agent of transmission for the virus, stay home, wash hands, don’t shake hands
  • Strengthen our physical system – eat well, sleep enough, take physical exercise
  • Strengthen our resilience – reduce our stress, find peace and calm
  • Use this to become better human beings…
    • stop what weakens you,
    • stop meeting with those that don’t want the best for you,
    • strengthen your relationships with those that do want the best for you,
    • begin the projects and habits that you in 20 years will look back with gratitude upon the you of march 2020 and thank your previous self for beginning during that time of crisis.

Have a wonderful Sunday

I’ve done a few livestreams myself over the last few days. I’ve got two more coming up…

…like today with COVID-19/Coronavirus affecting all aspects of our daily lives across the world.

When there is a huge range of possible impacts in the short, medium or long term, how can leaders prepare and respond?

Scenario Planning

Today, it is impossible to predict the impact of COVID-19/Coronavirus on our societies, our people, our future cash flows. Leaders cannot abdicate responsibility and say that they cannot decide because there are too many unknowns.

In the current context, business leaders need to lead with a number of specific actions:

  1. Set company policy and make sure all employees know this policy. This policy should cover at minimum what is covered in my recent post COVID-19/Coronavirus – How business leaders should respond?
  2. Communicate daily what you are seeing, what you are expecting, who is involved, what it means…
  3. Scenario Planning
    1. Best Case – What is the best case we might possibly expect and how will we respond if the situation pans out in this way?
    2. Worst Case – What is the truly worst case we might face? What actions can we take today that can prepare us for dealing with this? What cash reserves will we need? What will we do with suppliers, customers, banks, employees in this worst case? Are there any actions that can reduce the impact? Can we survive this worst case? (“You can only learn from the crisis that you survive” Jim Collins)
    3. Other Cases between best and worst – What will happen under these scenarios? How can we prepare plans and our people to perform under these conditions?

It may be helpful to have separate people/teams working on response plans for each of the scenarios.

IESE Business School is working on 4 possible Scenarios and teams are putting in place the technology, the training, the support systems in order to allow for any of these 4 scenarios to be supported. As of yesterday, IESE has moved to scenario 3… All classes delivered online for at least the next 2 weeks. All travel stopped. All marketing activities with on campus visits stopped.

IESE is maintaining the capacity to go back to on-campus teaching, and is maintaining regular communications to employees, to faculty and to students via email, a blog and internal messaging tools.

I heard a tough question this morning (on a podcast).

“Who is the least reliable person you know?”

A powerful reflection… stop and have a think. Is it a friend? Is it a brother? Is it a parent? Is it you… to yourself?

We live in a time of great uncertainty… coronavirus… globalization… robots taking our jobs… a way to bring some certainty to your life and the life of the people you care about… is to be deliberate in keeping your promises.

What impact does it have when someone is not reliable? What impact does it have in your own life when you don’t keep the promises that you make to yourself? Today? In a decade?

Thanks to Tony for pushing me to reflect deeply on the nature of friendship… and to the podcast this morning for a reminder:

We are seeing growth in COVID-19/Coronavirus infections around the world. Some facts about the disease.

  • Unlike the flu, very young people do not seem to be at any increased risk from COVID-19.
  • Risk appears to ramp up for people over age 50. Mortality rates are 0.6% to 1.5% in general population, 80-85% of cases are mild (which is the big problem because you are infectious, but able to go out in the world).
  • The big risk is rapid spread and the collapse of hospital facilities in local regions. All efforts are directed towards slowing the spread of infection so that we don’t see a huge number of critical cases all needing hospital beds at the same time. This is what happened in Wuhan and led to the higher fatality rates in that region.

How it affects me?

As a business leader in Spain I find myself struggling to take reasoned decisions around the COVID19/Coronavirus outbreak that is spreading through the world. Over the weekend all of North Italy (16M people) went into quarantine. Last night Madrid closed all schools.

I have a training event coming up late March for our leadership team. A Vistage Chair will be travelling over from the US to run the 3 day event. Should we go ahead with the event? Should we cancel? How can I approach this decision and find a balance between emotion and reason, short term safety and long term impacts.

I find it very hard to get myself emotionally centered and make a reasoned decision. If I read the news for 20 minutes, I feel like the whole world is coming to an end… markets crashing… supply chains in grave danger…

Then I look into the illness… how serious is it? Clearly nobody wants an illness of any type… but we are lucky that this wake-up call to the global health system is not highly lethal. This crisis will prepare us and potentially mitigate or reduce the impact of a future more lethal strain that spreads widely.

How should a Small Business CEO respond?

First, leaders need to communicate regularly… I would suggest a daily update about what company policy is and what scenarios we are looking at, also what we don’t know. Even if that communication is “we have nothing new to communicate today, but we are paying close attention to what is happening” it is an important signal of leadership.

Establish and communicate Company policy – every company needs to establish a company policy that at its very least recommends the following:

  1. If you are sick, or have flu-like symptoms – do not come to work. Stay home and contact your local medical services.
  2. Wash hands regularly. Don’t touch your face. This disease (and many others) is passed from hands to mouth and nose.
  3. Wipe down work areas regularly. Shared desks, computers, personal mobile devices can gather and share the virus.
  4. Reduce physical contact as much as necessary at this time. Handshakes and kisses are out, fist pumps or elbow nudges are the replacement gesture.
  5. Encourage video conference over travel and face to face meetings. Many companies have temporarily banned any meeting of 20 or more people.
  6. Put plans in place now for remote work – think through now how the business could operate in a full quarantine.
  7. Liquidity – can you establish lines of credit, sources of financing that can get you through the next few weeks and months. As Jim Collins says “we can only learn from a crisis if we survive the crisis”.
  8. School closures? – How can employees respond if their schools close and they are at home? What is your policy? Case by case basis?

Personal and Family

Get your own house and family in order.

  • Plan for looking after kids at home if schools shut down Can you remote work or create flexibility to do your work from home?
  • Plan for the (unlikely) event you and your family can not leave your home for 2 weeks quarantine. Get in food and drinks for a 2 week stay at home.
  • Make sure your family has 2-3 months of medicine. If a loved one is taking a medicine or drug regularly, you may want to ensure a few months extra supply.

3 Important Reasons For Optimism

1. The disease is mild in most people who get it. At least 80%, most likely more, will only have flu-like symptoms.

2. Children seem particularly protected from severe coronavirus disease. Many of the sniffles and colds kids experience are due to existing milder coronavirus strains, possibly giving them partial immunity to this more serious new threat.

3. There has been extraordinary global cooperation from doctors and health officials. This is a level of globalisation that I am proud to see our leaders and doctors capable of.

Reliable Information Sources

I will continue to update this post as we learn more about effective response to COVID-19/Coronavirus.