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Everyday Leadership: 3 Lessons From COVID-19 Superheroes

Thursday, September 17, 2020
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Unprecedented crises threaten human lives and upend the way we work, learn, and live. In our lifetime, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest threat to human health and well-being, social welfare, and the global economy. It has required us to quarantine at home and halt the way we connect with our loved ones, our friends and colleagues, and society at large, and it brought the economy to a screeching halt, eliminating millions of jobs across almost every industry.

During this time, though, not everyone has been quarantining at home. Doctors, first responders, and other essential workers have been suiting up every day to bring us medical care, stock grocery store shelves, and deliver packages. Facing their own fears and risking life and death, these everyday superheroes have been putting others’ needs above their own, staying positive against all odds and delivering practical help to everyone in their communities.

Recently, Amazon aired the Everyday Heroes docuseries, which featured more than 15 men and women selflessly serving their communities across the country, defying the dangers of COVID-19, and focusing on the common good. Research shows that these everyday superheroes are practicing altruists who are motivated by serving others. Through their service, they raise us through collective efficacy.

I dug a little deeper to analyze these superheroes and their common behavioral traits, understand the key drivers behind their selfless service, and glean lessons everyone can learn and apply to make our communities better now and in the future. Here is what I found.

Develop a Growth Mindset

The 15 everyday superheroes have stayed mostly positive despite the fear and danger posed by the pandemic. For instance, Pamela, a pediatric nurse practitioner, said that she tried “to live life to the fullest, serve others, and seize the day.” Additionally, Daniel, a farmer from Kentucky, said, “We have to be hopeful.” And Trevor, the senior hospital inventory technologist working in the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, said, “I chose to hold my bad day and focus on getting the work done.”

How do they do it? They are practicing a growth mindset, whereby they believe that you can grow and thrive through your efforts by accepting help from others. In her seminal work Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck points out that people with a growth mindset are able to embrace challenges and persist when crises and setbacks occur by maintaining a positive outlook.

You can build a growth mindset by following Dweck’s four steps:

1. Embrace your fixed mindset by simply accepting the little voice in your head that says “OK, give up now, you’ll never get this.”

2. Recognize what triggers your fixed mindset. Perhaps when you are trying to get that new project or get a promotion.

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3. Create a persona or avatar for your fixed mindset. You can give it a name. This helps you recognize, accept, and separate your fixed mindset from your potential.

4. Educate your fixed mindset.

Serve Selflessly

The second powerful trait that the 15 everyday superheroes share is selflessly serving others with empathy and without expecting anything in return. According to Tiffany, a bus driver in Seattle, Washington, who drives essential workers to and from work, “It is important for me to keep driving, to be able to help the essential workers get to their jobs.” And from Francisco, an emergency vehicle mechanic who fixes first responder vehicles, we heard, ”I love what I do, and I will continue doing it no matter what it takes.”

Keith Ferrazzi and Adam Grant offer some analysis in their respective research. Grant calls the people who selflessly serve others givers. He explains that they give as a way of being and showing up in the world. They selflessly offer their knowledge, expertise, time, energy, and resources, just like the 15 everyday heroes from the Amazon docuseries. Grant’s research also shows that these givers are more productive, more successful, and more effective in business.

But how can you selflessly serve others? Ferrazzi recommends to first ask your friend or colleague what drives them. After listening to their answer, find ways to help them drive their mission. He calls this “seeking other people’s blue flame” by being curious. He adds that you should listen for clues, such as when their voice rises, speeds up, or slows down. These changes let you know you have hit a cord about what impassions them.

In addition, listen for challenges and difficulties they are facing in their efforts to materialize their vision. Finally, come up with opportunities and ways to help them achieve their goal. For example, if your colleague is contemplating going back to school to earn a doctorate, you can ask her some basic questions about why she wants to pursue additional education and listen to her concerns as she explores this new path. Then offer to help her prepare for the interview with the admissions officer, provide tips on what questions she can ask, and let her practice sharing examples from her career that are relevant for the degree she is seeking. By offering to be a sounding board, you are offering selfless service to your colleague and you invest in her success.

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Offer Practical Help

The third trait of everyday superheroes is their ability to deliver practical help during the pandemic despite limited resources and challenges. It is important to note that these superheroes use whatever means they have, including their own finances, to deliver what is needed regardless of the risk that poses to their own well-being. One participant in the docuseries, Brad, mentioned that he leveraged his life savings and home equity to avoid furloughing his team and to buy the UVC lights needed for the devices they produced.

These superheroes are altruistically motivated and, despite their limited resources of time and money, continue to plow forward in practical ways to help others. For instance, 14-year-old Chelsey talked about how she prepares and sends art kits to hundreds of kids around the country. She said, “It costs over $1,000 per month to ship these kits, but I want other kids know there is someone out there looking out for them.”

A similar example is Haley, who created a foundation to help the homeless. She prepares and distributes donated and leftover meals from restaurants. During the pandemic, with restaurant closures, it has been extremely difficult to feed the homeless. She said when there is not enough food for deliveries, she “continues to push somehow,” using her savings to make supplementary food purchases.

Meanwhile, there’s Roman, who had to let go staff during the pandemic and now operates alone the family restaurant in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. He decided to make hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed first responders in New York City. “Being here helps them [the essential workers and first responders] have something to look forward to,” he said.

In his seminal research, Daniel Bar-Tal discusses that altruistically motivated actions are observable, benefit another person, and are performed voluntarily and intentionally without expectation of any external reward. So, how can you offer practical help to others?

The adage, “Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are,” which is often attributed to late president Teddy Roosevelt, serves as a fitting maxim here. As a young professional starting your career, you may not have many resources at your disposal. But you don’t have to offer money to help others; you have other skills, services, and support to offer. The point is that doing something willingly, voluntarily, and with no other intention but to be of help will set you on the right path of altruistic motivation.

Ferrazzi defines this as co-elevation; these are actions you can take to “go higher together” with others, whether family, friends, or colleagues. Such actions can include helping team members to develop new skills by teaching them what you know or speaking with candor for the benefit of the mission and team.

During this global pandemic, everyday superheroes have lifted all of us higher, spreading hope and love with their positive perspective, selfless giving, and practical help. They serve as an example for all of us to follow now and in the future. How will you rise to help others?

About the Author

Marina Theodotou, EdD, is a learning faculty member at the Defense Acquisition University. She is a learning and development leader with global business experience across private, government, and nonprofit sectors. She helps organizations increase productivity, profitability, and performance by optimizing their talent through the design and development of relevant, game-changing, and measurable learning curricula. Marina is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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