Leaders are being tested by COVID-19 and the rapidly evolving responses that are dramatically disrupting how we work in our organizations and with our teams. We have many leadership habits that help us deal with all that comes at us in normal times, but those habits are being disrupted by this global pandemic. As things get busier and more challenging, it is easy for leaders to get caught up in the energy. From my 20-plus years as an executive coach, I know those who are most successful stay engaged with their advisors and coach, take the time to think before acting despite the pressures and demonstrate sustainable leadership. Here are four powerful points that can guide you as a leader in this time of crisis. Positioned as a series of “and” statements, they are designed to help you be both responsive and intentional.
1. Be reactive and intentional. Your people and teams need you to be available. and there will be decisions to be made in the moment, where time is truly of the essence. Many of us are prompted to act by the needs put in front of us. The adrenaline flows. We want to fight the fire. Yet often urgent decisions may not be as urgent with some thoughtful consideration.
Carve out space for a few deep breaths and take a minute or two to ask: Is this truly urgent? What is the downside to letting a little time go by before committing to a decision? What would this decision/commitment crowd out down the line, and can we manage that consequence?
For example, crises often impact the bottom line, and financial pressures will be strong to cut all the costs you can. And while business continuity is critical, taking care of long-term relationships needed for a business restart are equally important. Ask yourself, “What would the cost be to us if we lost this business-critical vendor? Would we be able to care for our returning customers without this capability? How can we control costs in this space and help our vendor to survive and be with us when we need her?”
Mindy Hall’s book Leading with Intention emphasizes how self-awareness is the driver of good decision-making especially in times of crisis. Breathing gets you in touch with what you are feeling and slows you down enough to be thoughtful and act intentionally.
2. Create clarity and appreciate ambiguity. In Daniel Goleman’s article “Leadership That Gets Results,” he shares data that shows how an authoritative (not authoritarian or coercive) leadership style has the strongest impact on climate overall, and the most powerful aspect of climate is clarity, a key driver of engagement. As Goleman notes, the authoritative leadership style mobilizes people to a vision and is driven by self-confidence. Yet it is hard to be confident in the face of ambiguity. Balance authoritative leadership with a democratic style that encourages people to speak up, so that you can fully understand their concerns and the opportunities they see. This makes your people feel heard and gives them a voice when it comes to creating action plans.
3. Show courage and do it collaboratively. Crisis situations are marked by a lack of complete information, both of where we stand and what the near future will look like. When decisions have to be made, show courage to make the decision that is most consistent with your core values about working with people. Care and concern are keys to maintaining trust. Yet the leader who shows courage on their own can create more turbulence, missing opportunities to align with others, creating incoherence when coherence is most needed. Collaborate with other leaders, pushing them to be courageous and finding the common ground that creates alignment and positive movement.
4. Create social distance and stay personally and visually engaged. We are in the early days of an incredible large-scale experiment on working remotely. Leaders who rely on being in close contact and walking around to take the temperature will find themselves more isolated and lacking normal indicators that help in decision-making. If we are to flatten the COVID-19 curve, we must support working at home, and we can use technology to stay personally engaged and in touch. Use the tools that enable remote meetings — FaceTime, Web-X, Skype and Zoom — and turn on that camera. As the Herrmann Whole Brain model suggests, we need people’s best thinking as to the “why?” “what?” “how?” and “who?” of the situation in order to create a plan of action, and visual cues are critical. We often communicate more through body language and tone of voice than through our words, and in a crisis, we must ensure we are communicating as best we can by turning the camera on. Engage with your folks one-on-one or in groups, ask the powerful questions that draw out what people are really thinking and feeling and show your concern as you rally the team to create a direction forward.
The maelstrom of news, fake news, science and conjecture may not yet be at its peak. We have the choice as leaders as to how we respond. Being reactive and intentional, creating clarity and living with ambiguity, showing courage and doing it collaboratively and creating social distance and staying connected personally are four ways to lead during these uncertain times. Keep these in front of you as you navigate your day, use them to make decisions, and you will be more likely to be the leader your people need.