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What the toilet paper shortage can teach us about 5 leadership styles

Surprising insights about leadership styles emerged as basic supplies ran out during the coronavirus crisis.

What the toilet paper shortage can teach us about 5 leadership styles
[Source images: bestofgreenscreen/iStock; Claire Mueller/Unsplash; Claire Mueller/Unsplash]

The coronavirus pandemic transformed daily life on an unprecedented scale. From millions now transitioning to remote work to changing the way we go to the bank and shop at the grocery store—we’ve all had to face some very unique and unanticipated challenges.

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But there was one obstacle that nobody saw coming: The massive disappearance of toilet paper from stores that led to a shortage that still hasn’t been adequately addressed. Store shelves that usually hold toilet tissue and paper products are now bare, and even online vendors are frequently reporting that their paper supplies are currently unavailable.

But in the midst of every challenge, there are opportunities. Though the situation is still quite comical on some level, two CEOs point out the leadership lessons we can all glean from the unexpected toilet paper debacle.

Larry Dorie is the CEO and cofounder of RHUB Communications, a company that’s been on the front lines of deploying remote technologies during COVID-19 quarantines to companies in the U.S. and abroad. Dorie shared, “Once I got over the initial shock of all of the missing paper products, I started to realize that this was a perfect situation for business executives to tap into to gain some meaningful leadership lessons that will make them better managers in both their personal and their professional life.” Among them, Dorie noted that three contrasting styles stood out.

Are you a hoarder or a giver?

While many are worried about when supplies will become available again, fear can cause people to overreact. It’s understandable to want to stock up on critical food and supplies you think you’ll need for an extended period. Still, 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. Leaders and brands that give extended grace periods on payment due dates, provide free delivery services for food, and give up late fees and other penalties during this season will be the ones that people stay loyal to for years to come.

Do you have good mess management skills?

There are all types of messes everywhere in life. While toilet paper alludes to cleaning up one type of mess, leaders have to remember there are other areas of our lives that are prone to getting a little messy as well. So when life gets messy, how do you handle it? What if you discover that someone has been doing something unethical in your business, or you find out that one of your competitors just said something negative about you in the press? Do you have the mess management skills to survive? Some leaders get flustered, while others remain calm, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.

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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.

Early bird or late riser?

At the mere hint of toilet tissue being in stock, some people lined up early in the morning before stores even opened, so they could be first to snatch up any recently shipped-in supplies. While the early risers were successful in grabbing their precious paper products, those who arrived later in the day found barren shelves again.

The old adage that the early bird gets the worm remains popular because it’s true, especially for leaders. Progressive leaders have to be first to set a positive direction for their companies and cast that vision to their employees. Inspirational leaders have to find creative ways to inspire their customers to be early adopters of their new products and services. And many leaders get up extra early to ensure their businesses can succeed.

“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?”

With this in mind, Ives shared two additional contrasting characteristics of leaders operating through a crisis.

Do you panic or stay calm and in control?

Fear and panic levels are high right now, on a global scale. Unfortunately, this often leads to irrational decisions and impulsive actions, such as people fighting over the last pack of tissue found on Aisle 9. But great leaders understand how to set aside their personal feelings of fear and panic, knowing those feelings will only make matters worse. Progressive leaders also know that if they lead by fear, these negative feelings will permeate their teams and impact their whole organization.

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The alternative is to remain calm and stay in control of your emotions, which is the first step to creating a well-thought-out plan for the situation. While this is not an easy skill to master, it helps to take a few breaths and think through potential outcomes, consult with other people in your inner circle who have wisdom, and then develop a robust and meaningful plan of action.

Do you look for alternative solutions?

With almost everything in life, there is a preferred way to accomplish things. When that doesn’t work out, it’s crucial to still find a way to get things done. When toilet tissue ran low, people found themselves operating by one of two schools of thought—either return home angry, panicky, and frustrated or look for some alternatives.

Many with excellent leadership skills resorted to using boxes of Kleenex, baby wipes, flushable wipes, or good old-fashioned paper towels. When the big-name stores ran out of supplies, some looked to other retail sources, such as office supply, hardware, and camping stores, or mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.

A little ingenuity can go a long way. Many leaders found what they were seeking by thinking outside the box. Good leaders realize that in any situation, when their ideal is not an option, it’s time to get creative and look for alternative methods to get the job done for themselves, their teams, and the customers they serve. It is this level of determination that helps them not only survive but thrive.

This list of characteristics demonstrates that true leadership rises to the top in the midst of challenging and difficult circumstances. Life has a funny way of teaching us all very valuable lessons, even from something as mundane as locating toilet paper. This shortage will end, but the leadership lessons of determination and resourcefulness are sure to last for years, and the nation and the business community at large will be stronger because of it.


Kimberley Brown is an award-winning communications professional executing strategic plans for corporate brands, consumer products, entertainment projects, and numerous nonprofit and social good initiatives.

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