The Hammer & The Dance: Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

The Hammer & The Dance: Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

The various ways countries have responded to the pandemic has many lessons for us as leaders.

Mark Carney, former Bank of England and Bank of Canada chief, in his important new book, Values-Building a Better World for All, talks about the two ways countries dealt with the pandemic. He named them the “hammer” and the “dance.” The difference is self-explanatory. Those who used the hammer (Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand) took a hard line and endured short term painful medicine. Those who did the dance (Canada, the United States, India) tried to keep towing the line back and forth between tough choices and opening back up. Not surprisingly, those who took the path of the hammer are living life close to normal now, those who chose the dance have endured a year plus of ongoing pain. In some cases, like in the US, the challenge is easing because of vaccines, but at the expense of half a million lives and millions of lost jobs. Even within Canada, the Maritime Provinces went “hammer” and have avoided the worst of the crisis. While the hammer and the dance doesn’t fully explain the variability, it connected me to an even more critical concept that helps explain both pandemic success and serves an important lesson for leaders.

Discipline is Putting the Pain First

F. Scott Peck in one of the greatest books of my lifetime, The Road Less Traveled, used his decades of experience as a psychotherapist to suggest that the prime psychological barrier for most of his clients was the willingness to “delay gratification,” a process he called “putting the pain first.” He went on to suggest that the willingness to be disciplined and put the pain first was the key to psychological healing. Going to therapy and confronting the barriers to your wellbeing is tough, and doing so is painful in the short term, but leads to long term gain. We see this principle in many ways in our personal lives. Going to the gym is less fun than sitting around eating ice cream, networking long before you need help from people is time consuming, but when we do the hard things first, it pays off.

The Marshmallow Effect

Some of you may be familiar with the famous study called “the marshmallow effect” conducted at Stanford University by Walter Mischel in 1972. The experiment measured how well children could delay immediate gratification to receive greater rewards in the future—an ability that predicts success later in life. The preschool children were given the chance to eat a marshmallow now or get two if they held off for ten minutes. Mischel found that preschoolers who could hold out longer before eating the marshmallow performed better academically, handled frustration better, and managed their stress more effectively as adolescents. They also had healthier relationships and better health 30 years later!

Delaying gratification is key to success. Right now, India is experiencing a COVID tragedy of unimaginable proportions. My heart breaks for them. Experts say India MUST lock the entire country down now, and that they never should have loosened previous restrictions. Only the bitter pill of shutting down the whole society can stop the virus. The dance won’t work. Throughout the pandemic we can see the price for delaying the pain. Countries like Australia and New Zealand instituted two-week hard lockdowns in quarantine hotels, thus keeping the virus at bay. Both countries endured severe lock downs whenever cases emerged. Even now, Australia just bit the hard pill of prohibiting its own citizens from returning from India. China did the same. Other countries like Canada are doing the dance by canceling flights but still allowing people to arrive via other places. It’s not hard to know which way will work. Australia is putting the pain first while Canada is going to experience the pain later when variants from India join the numerous others growing across the country. Putting the pain first is hard, for individuals, for societies and for organizations.

The Marshmallow Twist

There is an interesting twist to the marshmallow research. Years later, the study was replicated with a small change. Children were put in “teams” with other children and if they cooperated with each other, they earned more marshmallows. Turns out that those who cooperated were much more likely to delay gratification. When children felt responsible for the rewards of others in addition to their own, they were more willing to delay the rewards. Not surprisingly, those countries where individualism is strongest, like the United States, had greatest challenges with the virus. Even now a cogent argument could be made that while hoarding vaccines is in the selfish interest of the richest nations, it could ultimately backfire. By thinking only about our own marshmallows, we are forgetting that if developing nations such as India suffer, those variants will eventually impact us no matter how much we vaccinate. We might have to delay some of our own progress to help India bend the curve.

The Next Crisis

Of course, the time to have delayed gratification was before the pandemic. We got warned for years it was coming but did next to nothing to get ready for it. The money and effort it would have taken to be more prepared would have been small in comparison with the human and financial costs we are enduring. Experts tell us that the next crisis, Climate Change, will be much more disruptive both to economies and human wellbeing as it affects our food supply, migration, international security and maybe even the stability of Earth’s weather. It will cost us quite a few marshmallows now to create a greener economy. But there is little doubt that short term focus will mean much more pain later. And just like that marshmallow example, unless we help the entire world move to a low carbon future, it may not matter if we clean up our own backyard.

So, what does all this mean for leaders?

First, would people say you are a “hammer” leader or a “dance” leader? Are you willing to make tough decisions now for the future benefit of the company? Are you willing to take a stand on what you and your company stand for even if holding to those values means short term pain or isn’t popular? Are you investing in activities that won’t pay off for some time, forgoing short term profit for long term investment?

Second, have you created an environment for cooperation? Are your incentive systems rewarding marshmallows only for individual performance versus encouraging everyone to cooperate for the larger success? Are you cooperating with others to build a better society for all which in the long run is good for your business?

Finally, are you putting the pain first in your own work and life? What is the hard work you need to do on yourself? What are the patterns that keep you from greater success or health that have never been truly tackled? Are you actively confronting the demons in the way of your own greater success? Yes, it is hard to do it, but the ultimate rewards are great.

And while you are at it-put two books on your need to read list. Mark Carney’s Values and the classic Road Less Traveled by F. Scott Peck.


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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