Whether we talk about business, government, the military, education, or just about any discipline you might consider, leadership matters. Leaders matter. In fact, there are literally thousands of books currently in print on the topic of leadership. But how do you measure the qualities of a good leader? These are people who inspire, who have a vision, who set goals and then lead their people to achieve those goals. That is a much easier job to do when times are good and there are no bumps in the road. During those good times, business leaders can focus on things like promoting innovation, driving revenue, and gaining market share. But the real measure of a good leader is how that person leads their teams during times of crisis.
Right now, leaders in all disciplines are facing a global crisis with COVID-19 and the focus for business leaders is to maintain their operations…to stave off disaster. For some companies, leaders are fighting for the very survival of their organizations. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t inspire their teams. Everyone is thirsty for a return to some kind of normalcy, but every day, that normalcy still seems far away. With so many employees working remotely and uncertain of their own and the company’s future, stress is constant. For leaders, that means, in addition to doing what is necessary to keep business going, they also need to try to relieve their employees’ stress and keep them on track.
How to do that during this pandemic is a major concern for business leaders. An article in the Harvard Business Review from April said it well:
In times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your team. Effective leaders are understanding of their team’s circumstances and distractions, but they find ways to engage and motivate, clearly and thoroughly communicating important new goals and information,” – Harvard Business Review
The article addresses the problem of ambiguous threats…when the dangers are not that clear (think of the beginning of the year with COVID-19), when people can convince themselves that the light at the end of the tunnel is near, when it is possible to convince oneself that problems are exaggerated; that is the time that leaders need to do something that seems counter intuitive. As the article notes, “It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay.” Leaders need to take crises head on and be realistic about the challenges.
4 Steps Leaders Need to Take
So what are the steps that you need to take as a leader at this time? The Harvard Business Review article listed four essential steps that can make all the difference:
Don’t delay decision making waiting for the problem to go away. And don’t wait till things get really bad…by that time, it may be too late to avoid worse consequences. You may not have all the information you would like, but make sure everything is in place to move…fast.
Choose transparency in communications
Nobody likes to communicate bad news. There is a fear of demoralizing employees in a time where they are already stressed to the max. So it is important for you to acknowledge the fear and concern that your employees are feeling and address those in any communications. Communications need to be honest and accurate depictions of the reality the business and the employees are facing. However, as the line in the movie The Shawshank Redemption goes, “Hope is a good thing.” Somewhere in the communications, you should address a future that looks hopeful…realistic, yet hopeful.
Admit mistakes and resolve them
Things are never clear when something like a pandemic first hits. It’s not like a weather disaster, where you may not know the full extent of damages but you have a relatively good idea of what the outcome could be. With a novel virus like this, too much was, and still is, unknown. And when the unknown hits, good intentions may lead to bad results. When that happens, don’t make excuses…make corrections. If you are criticized, don’t be defensive and don’t deflect. Address this in your employee communications, indicate what went wrong and then show how you are going to fix it.
Communicate and update constantly
Because, in today’s crisis, we find out new things on a daily basis, it is important to remember that the employees are also hearing the same news, day after day. So it is necessary to keep communicating with your team. You don’t know what you don’t know, so as situations change, make sure to notify your teams what you are doing. As the article notes, “Leaders must constantly update their understanding of prior probabilities, even daily, deliberately using strategies to elicit new information and learn rapidly as events unfold and new information comes to light.” That can also mean admitting to your employees that you, as the leader, don’t necessarily have all the answers and that you may need to bring on experts from different fields to handle specific problems. That doesn’t exhibit failure…it exhibits your acknowledgement that, though you still are in charge, you are looking to other for additional guidance.
For far too many leaders, this is a crisis few fully understand, making it ever more essential to be flexible, to be realistic, to be empathetic, and to be, ultimately, forward looking and hopeful. Although this situation poses great challenges for leaders, it also gives them the chance to do what good leaders do best: inspire, create a vision, and lead.