Beyond Excellence Toward Exceptional Leadership

Featured Article From the QMD Leadership CMC
By Trevor R. Shaw CPA CA CMC CQA

COVID 19 is putting organizational excellence to the test. Beyond excellence, people’s experience in this pandemic could generate a push and pull toward exceptional leadership in dealing with other major issues.


COVID 19 (C-19) is putting an unfathomable hurt on people, economies and governments. It is akin to war where the enemy is unseen and potentially everywhere. The front lines are not in a foreign land but here at our front doors.

Who would have thought a few months ago we would be sending military medical personnel into long term care homes to take care of the living and dying? An enemy strikes where most vulnerable – revealing long standing systemic issues in long term care.

There is uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. What are we becoming as a society and what will our daily lives look like as the curve flattens and we begin finding our way down the curved mountain slope and into a new reality? Will there be a second or third wave of C-19?

This article first talks about C-19 as a call on excellence in particular with regard to leadership in time of crisis. The second part is about exceptional or extraordinary leadership as we move into a new reality and beyond. The purpose is food for thought.

The ideas presented are my own and do not represent any organization I am associated with.


Organizational excellence takes on added significance in time of crisis

First a frame of reference; the organizational excellence framework as is the 2010 copyright of Dawn Ringrose. (See illustration on the right)

This framework is robust and useful. The key area of leadership focusses on defining and implementing “strong” leadership practices including creating a culture of excellence, developing and communicating a strategic plan, sharing responsibility and accountability, communicating openly about organizational performance and removing barriers to organizational effectiveness.

The first global assessment reported in April 2019 ( revealed strengths and opportunities for improvement in meeting excellence principles. Most organizations rated the culture of excellence quite positively with strengths on the principles of leadership involvement (7.1 out of 10), focus on the customer and opportunities for improvement for prevention based process management and data based decision making.

This assessment was done in “normal times”. All good – but good enough when business is far from usual?

Certain aspects of the Excellence Framework take on added weight in a time of crisis. In addition to leadership, consider quality control in the context of C-19:
  • Ventilators have been found not working properly – what does this say about excellence in quality control processes from the hospital floor to the manufacturing floor? Shortage of ventilators a whole other problem.
  • Ability to test has been very limited due to inadequate supply of kits (also a whole other problem). Delay in getting test results also a whole other problem. At the same time, when testing people has been done there has apparently been many false positives and negatives. Who is doing the root-cause analysis fast enough to fix that? Testing is key to care of C-19 casualties and to produce reliable data for carrying out effective plans for containing C-19. Testing is also critical to deciding when, where and how lockdown will be lifted. If testing is materially unreliable (no matter how many taken) and those in authority have to guestimate C-19 prevalence or direction– where does that leave us? Reliable intelligence and communication are key in any war.
  • When the forecast of the demand on hospital beds turns out to be widely divergent from actual experience – what does this say about data quality in support of decision making?
This said, the ingenuity and adaptability of organizations is remarkable. A tip of the excellence hat to Bauer pivoting from sports helmets to manufacturing personal protective equipment for health care providers. Then a Canadian company that found a smart way to develop a C-19 treatment, the company that developed a 15 minute portable C-19 test kit, and the engineering students who found a fast cheap way to convert continuous positive airway pressure machines into ventilators. And, with help of doctors a manufacturer of trailers developed a self-contained portable C-19 assessment unit that could be easily towed and placed in a parking lot.

Finally, some 150 labs around the world are partnering or sharing information to find C-19 treatments and a vaccine. Hotels are being quickly converted into hospitals to handle C-19 casualties. This is evidence of the importance of excellence in working together to develop products, services and standards. New alliances are forged.

In dark times leadership is about character

Someone once said that war is too important to leave to the generals. C-19 is teaching that leadership is on the ground including doctors and nurses, first responders, home care providers, public servants, grocery and drug store personnel, truck drivers, farmers, mailmen, garbage crews and many more – all the people we probably took for granted until now. And not-for profits and “ordinary citizens” are stepping up to the plate everywhere.

Leadership from the top in good times might be seen as reputation that follows in the light of day. In dark times leadership is about character.

For those in position of authority and responsibility, saving lives while avoiding deep economic recession is no trivial matter. The unemployment rate in Canada doubled in a month to 13% and spiked to 14.7% in the USA – the like not seen since the great depression. A heavy weight falls on leaders. It is hard to say there will be deaths and bankruptcies. And bringing us into a “new normal” will be as much a challenge as taking us out of normal.
So, what are the characteristics of excellent leadership “from the top” that matter the most when business is far from usual? Consider:
  • What is expected when decisions have to be made with little information?
  • What does a leader do when all options seem equally undesirable?
  • What does a leader say and do when putting people in harm’s way?
  • How do leaders make a mind shift from a “win-win” (we all win!) to “lose–lose” (we all lose something) when fighting a war against a virus?
  • How does a leader react when disruption for change is external and not resulting from self-induced change within managerial control?
  • How does a leader make people feel confident about going back to work or school after self-isolation, physical distancing and economic shutdown lift? We will all ask is it safe?
Here are ten leadership ingredients I see C-19 calling on at a premium.
  • Competence combined with compassion for employees and customers
  • Being proactive and taking action with imperfect information
  • Choosing sources of information wisely
  • Listening carefully to those with eyes and ears on the ground
  • Not winging it – relying on the team and the experts
  • Communicating early, often and openly – telling what is known, what is not known, and updating when more is known
  • Being visible and accessible
  • Applying whole system thinking – understanding domino effects up and down a system or process – including supply chains
  • Empowering out of the box thinking, flexibility and innovation
  • Accepting responsibility and accountability for what happens.
There are examples of leaders demonstrating such characteristics.

One example is Galen Weston of Loblaws. He has been communicating frequently to PC brand customers about what his company is doing to ensure the safety of employees and customers. He took action quickly stepping up store cleaning, modifying store hours, installing plastic barriers at checkouts, giving extra pay and time off for employees to rest, controlling the numbers entering stores to allow physical distancing, giving seniors and medical workers priority access to shopping, increasing support for on-line shopping and curb pick up, and increasing free delivery of prescriptions.

Ontario’s Premier Ford was among the first to close schools, public spaces and shut down the economy. He publicly explained reasons for actions taken. He has shared data with the public. He is asking why 17 out of 34 chief medical officers are not achieving desired testing critical to decision making.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State painted a grim picture on an epicentre and outlined what his administration was doing in cooperation with mayors and other governors. He will be remembered for saying – if you must blame someone, blame me because the buck stops here. He may also be remembered for saying – “I am open to a plan from the White House –just tell me what it is”.
But what of leadership after the crisis passes?


When I think of exceptional or extraordinary leadership people such as these come to mind: Ghandi, Mandela, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Sister Theresa. What sets them apart? They had vision, purpose, selflessness and courage in meeting great social and/or humanitarian need beyond the immediate and the material– often at great personal cost. Their purpose was toward greater good and not toward darkness.

To be clear, this is not a call for a Ghandi. The proposition here is the opportunity for moving toward exceptional leadership given all C-19 is teaching at a terrible price.
The C-19 experience could reshape values and consumer behaviour

Are people whether as citizens, consumers or taxpayers wanting to go back to normal?

In the time out provided by C-19 many may be re-thinking what is most important to them –what really matters. Do they want to give up working from home and go back to a daily commuting grind? Will they tolerate government programs that wind up helping the corporate large and few and not the small family business or farm - the glue holding a country like Canada and the USA together?

The C-19 experience may reshape social values and the social contract between a people and their government. Mull over these:
  • Is a head of a hospital earning $700K a year worth the same as ten nurses on the floor earning $70K a year?
  • Is a CEO earning $20 million a year plus benefits and stock options worth all that much more than a factory worker turning out food or supplies earning $60K and the truck driver delivering them?
  • Is paying an athlete $3 million a year to chase a puck or throw a ball worth it compared to increasing the minimum wage or increasing the numbers and pay of workers in hospitals and nursing homes? The Canadian Football League is looking for a $150 million federal bailout as the result of C-19. What’s the appetite for this compared to a call for help from Canadian farmers?
A mall in the middle of a day during C-19 shut down– photo by T Shaw

One economist observed C-19 is accelerating the demise of shopping malls. This because many more consumers are now comfortable with on-line shopping from home. Whatever the case, it’s eerie to walk through a mall devoid of people.

Consumer attitudes and behaviour may well change and reshape economies. Might people now want to do less, buy less, restaurant less, travel less, buy local, and buy quality - instead of more and more that winds up in storage or in waste fill? Might people be more willing to do whatever it takes to reduce carbon emission and move away from oil and natural gas consumption? If you will – life simpler and cleaner.

Last but not least, the environment clearly responds to economic shutdown and when oil cannot be given away – from clean air and less noise in Los Angeles to jelly fish swimming in clear canals of Venice – such not experienced for decades. People are amazed and like it.
The response to C-19 demonstrates the power of social commitment

The actions in response to C-19 are driven by commitment to society and the wellbeing of people as a collective whole. This is powerful.

The global self-assessment of excellence indicated a fairly high rating of 6.4 out of 10.0 on societal commitment. However, it also found that among the lowest rated practices was involving suppliers and partners in development of social and environmental standards.

So, what is the evidence that corporations are good citizens? What are corporations actually doing to lessen poverty (segments of the population most vulnerable to C-19 and poor health generally), to reduce environmental footprint, to improve sustainable resource consumption, to protect human rights, and to fight corruption?

How well are corporations doing in their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting? Are these honest? Would they stand audit? Or are they largely a public relations and marketing exercise; or as some say “greenwashing”.

ESG performance reporting could take on added significant in a post C-19 world. Organizations that authentically demonstrate social commitment as a core value even at cost to the bottom line are likely to be seen by consumers as value added and have competitive advantage. Seeing and acting on this, calls for exceptional leadership.
About the Author

Trevor Shaw CPA, CA, CMC, CQA. Trevor has 40 years of experience auditing government programs in Canada while serving as a Principal with the Auditor Generals of Canada and Alberta. He also served as Director General at the Privacy Commissioner of Canada responsible for privacy audits and privacy impact reviews. Trevor is “retired”. He contracts part time mainly in regard to ensuring audit quality. Trevor serves on the Board of the Consumers Council of Canada. He is married with two children and five grandchildren

C-19 reminds that exceptional leadership goes beyond a bottom line

We know countries, including Canada, were ill prepared for C-19. Why? No answer here.

But hypothetically, let us imagine a year ago where a public servant recommended Canada increase its national inventory of personal protective equipment by 50% at an estimated cost of $500 million in order to prepare for an epidemic. How might that have gone over?

Now with benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wouldn’t a decision to increase stock been gold? Who would be concerned about economy and efficiency except in terms of getting supplies quickly to the front lines everywhere?

All to say, excellence in public administration goes to serving the public interest even when the immediate benefit of spending is uncertain or difficult to attribute, or results cannot be measured, or the payback could be generations away. It may also mean doing the unpopular and this takes courage inherent to exceptional leadership.

But I do ask why does it take a disaster or crisis to address a problem or risk exposure? The Exxon Valdez, Deep Water Horizon, 5.6 earthquakes in Oklahoma, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the collapse of Wall Street were no accident. Subsequent investigation shows these were preventable through effective governance coupled with risk assessment, monitoring and risk mitigation. With a little more exceptional leadership such things might never have happened.
C-19 is teaching difficult challenges can be met

Lastly, witness how governments and business have mobilized and come together in face of a common enemy. Other consequential things have crept up on us over many years that threaten wellbeing albeit not as immediate and personal as a virus.

With lessons of a pandemic, what about acting with collective purpose to ameliorate climate change and deal with extreme weather? What about accelerating sustainable resource consumption and lifting people out of poverty? What about the impact of quantum computing and artificial intelligence now before us? Then, what of ever growing national debts? Can this be sustained indefinitely – if not, what adjustments or sacrifice are we prepared to make before hitting a wall?

At the moment, health science is paramount in dealing with C-19. Skills in the social sciences may well become much in demand to deal with complex ethical and social issues that come with challenges other than a pandemic. But now we know from C-19 experience that challenges can be met when collective will is marshalled. This takes exceptional leadership.

To sum. C-19 is teaching but at a terrible price. But it may result in a push and pull toward exceptional leadership in dealing with other major issues of our time. Where does this begin? The enemy is not a virus. As Pogo said “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
News Quality Management Division 02/15/2021 12:14pm CST


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