It’s one thing to break the single season passing NFL passing record after it stood for 27 years. It’s a whole other thing to lead through a pandemic. Or is it? Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux’s leaders Brandon Landry and Scott Taylor have reapplied Drew Brees’s leadership philosophy to their business – as they should. Brees was the guy who broke that record and is a co-owner and partner in their business.

Brees’s locker room speech after breaking Dan Marino’s record on December 27, 2011 is a masterclass in respectful leadership, hitting on empathy, authenticity, innovation, values and inspiration. There’s no false modesty here. He’s just clear that we had this opportunity “because of the guys in this room” – all of them: players, coaches, equipment managers, trainers. He goes on to talk about all the people that caught passes in all sorts of innovative ways. He talks about teamwork and pride. He points the way to their journey filled with an even brighter future.

Hopefully Brees has been applying that same attitude and approach to today’s controversies.

In any case, Walk-On’s Scott Taylor took me through how they apply these ideas at Walk-On’s. While the full-service restaurant industry was flipped on its head amid the pandemic, Taylor credits their leadership culture for successfully adapting business operations, retaining staff, continuing to open new restaurants, and sign multi-unit agreements as COVID-19 rages on. As Taylor explained,

Strengthened Empathy: While always central to exceptional leadership, the pandemic created a crash course on how empathy should be the primary, guiding principle to anyone’s leadership style. The emotion brought forth by the pandemic is felt by all – leaders are forced to understand and navigate how that impacted their teams, motivation and productivity.

Walk-On’s has used more 1:1 meetings/access to leadership, all-new work from home policies, and even started diversity task forces as the nation has faced social unrest. By prioritizing empathy and gaining perspective, Walk-On’s leaders are making better decisions more quickly than ever before.

Straightforward Authenticity: The pandemic is forcing leaders to embrace vulnerability and showcase a new level of authenticity. Walk-On’s leaders are sharing issues, discussing what they’re struggling with, asking for help, being transparent.

When you do this, your team will too, and together you can work toward creative solutions more effectively and efficiently (i.e. how to shift business model in COVID world, how to keep all staff employed with no furloughs, how to repair relationships after taking controversial stands on issues, etc.).

Refined Focus on Innovation: The pandemic is forcing leaders to be aggressive vs. conservative when it comes to innovation. Whether it is the use of new technology, AI, social distance-friendly models, new products/services, or an all new arm of the business, the pandemic has brought forth a new wave of innovation.

Walk-On’s leaders had to accelerate their long-term goals, adjust, and push forward – realizing the value in not only preparing for the future, but acting on it sooner.  

Core Values Take Precedence: Amid the chaos, Walk-On’s leaders relied heavily on brand core values that unified employees and kept fear in check. Shared values inspired accountability and served as a reality check for coming together and trucking through the mud to prevail and overcome the pandemic.

With strengthened core values, Walk-On’s leaders have been able to build teams with the right people in the right seats to actualize the company purpose – just like Brees did with the Saints.

Being Inspirational is a Requirement: Walk-On’s strong leaders quickly understood that while the pandemic controlled many aspects of their business, one thing it could not rob them of was their mindset. Walk-On’s team members needed their leaders to have a fierce, positive, resilient mindset. People were scared to death, but whether it was daily emails, 1:1 zoom meetings, mental health checks, etc., employees needed the reminder and the encouragement that “this is a moment in time, not the end of time” to give them inspiration to carry on and contribute in their role.

As Brees put it, “That’s the journey we’re on. And it’s going to be about us as we continue on, as we win next week, and we continue to win and we continue this journey.”

There are so many unknowns. As you help people accept the darkest parts of the current reality, deal with controversies, and move forward where they can and how they can step-by-step, and yard-by-yard, do lead with empathy, authenticity, innovation, values and inspiration.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #658) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.