By Jason Richmond, Founder, Ideal Outcomes, Inc.
Without strong leadership, especially in a time of crisis, an organization will flounder and suffer negative impact long after the crisis has passed. A crisis is a time for leaders to step up to the plate, show what they are made of, and truly lead. Here are seven key principles by which leaders must live to successfully steer their organizations through tough times.
Some leaders are naturally collaborative while others tend to make a lot of independent decisions. Collaboration is non-negotiable when you are faced with a major challenge to your business. It is unreasonable to think one person could have all the answers.
As part of your efforts to understand what is going on, brainstorm with your teams. They will have ideas that need to be heard and honored and will think of things you did not. Listen carefully, especially to unpopular ideas or ideas with which you do not agree. You want a full picture of the situation and options before you take action with a perspective on the ambiguity that the world, your organization, your employees, and their families face. Dealing with this ambiguity is important for when it is excessive, it quickly translates into fear.
Multiple perspectives will help you not only develop Plan A, but also a series of contingency plans that will allow for agility and a way to cope with the next wave of the unexpected. As Peter Senge, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of the groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, wrote, “Collectively, we can be more insightful, more intelligent than we can possibly be individually.”
2. Display Empathy
Empathy is at the core of leadership, especially during times of crisis. Leaders should display a genuine understanding of the difficulties their employees have endured. As a major report from Korn Ferry featuring the interviews of over 300 companies with a collective $6.7 billion revenue stated, “CEOs need to be grounded in their own humanity.” The report went on to say that “[humanity] requires courage, intelligence, grace, authenticity, and self-awareness as they simultaneously drive results and execute strategy. It requires the qualities that come with emotional intelligence: openness, vulnerability, collaboration.” In short, real empathy requires both inward reflection and outward understanding of what lies ahead.
You can’t pay lip service to this need—it’s an essential part of leadership in a crisis. Show your team that you care about them on a personal level and not simply because they get their work done. Frequently ask people how they are doing and what they need and listen sincerely and attentively to their responses. Make sure they understand how they fit in the greater scheme of things and that they’re not just a name on a paycheck.
Zappos is a fine example of empathetic leadership. During the COVD-19 pandemic, the company set up a customer-service hotline called “Customer Service for Anything” that moved beyond fielding questions about shoes to resolving people’s pandemic-related issues. It served two purposes. First, their reps answered all manner of questions such as helping to locate a medical center or hard-to-find household supplies while taking time, when needed, for a comforting chat. Second, it not only kept the customer service reps employed but did so in a meaningful, psychologically satisfying way.
3. Be Positive Without Sugar-Coating
Be honest. You won’t get the great ideas you need if you downplay the problem. If your organization is struggling to function effectively, hiding this fact from your employees will not serve you well. You need their ideas to turn things around. The challenge is for leaders to share concerns without striking fear or a sense of hopelessness. By expressing realistic optimism and your belief and trust in your team’s ability to persevere, you are most likely to gain loyalty as well as their best ideas. Thank them sincerely for all that they do and the ideas they share. Honesty is the foundation of any relationship, and a key enabler of trust. Let them know you feel confident you will all weather the storm together.
You can also help your team remain positive by spending more time talking about what you can and will do as well as what has been accomplished, rather than what has been lost or what you cannot control.
4. Be Humble and Courageous
Deep crises require risk-taking and ongoing decision-making. You will make mistakes, so do the courageous thing and own up to them quickly and humbly.
Crisis leaders must understand that one strategy will not solve every problem. As the crisis evolves, so must your strategies. Contingency plans allow you to remain agile and so it’s important for you to have multiple options boosting your ability to switch your strategy to something appropriate for the new challenge. A good contingency plan will have already analyzed the risks and benefits of a particular course of action.
Additionally, it’s also important to stay true to yourself. Be willing to compromise on your plans, but not on your core principles. If you’re humble, transparent, and willing to share your own flaws you’ll build loyalty and team confidence. Transparency is the best prevention against panic and rumors and essential to build trust and to rally support for inevitably difficult decisions. Being transparent also means keeping people informed and updated regularly with facts, actions taken, risks, and progress.
5. Be Accountable
Accountability means answerability to a leader’s own results—good and bad. Give credit when things go well and don’t point fingers when they do not. When mistakes happen, admit to them and approach them as an opportunity to learn and improve.
When leaders admit mistakes, other employees will feel free to do the same, and the earlier errors are caught and redirected, the more effective you will be at changing course. Leaders do have to hold others accountable, but this does not mean blaming or berating. It means setting clear expectations, following up, and taking appropriate action.
6. Be Resilient
Good leaders demonstrate strength, especially in tough times. As Jim Harter, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Workplace, for Gallup’s workplace management practice explained during the COVID-19 catastrophe, “A make-or-break trait for organizations during tough times is resilience. This is especially true during the coronavirus pandemic. People’s compounding concerns about their health, financial future, and disrupted lives make this the toughest time most of us have ever experienced.”
Resilient leaders recover quickly and see failure as a temporary setback. They keep the team focused on how to move forward and on the opportunities the crisis presents rather than the challenges or losses. Resilience also helps leaders maintain self-control, allowing them to operate more like coaches than bosses connect to their teams. In a constantly changing workplace environment, they are adept at foreseeing what jobs will disappear and how employees will need to acquire new skills. They always have one eye on the evolving marketplace and are able to pivot the company to seize new opportunities.
7.Plan for Tomorrow
Identify and manage your leaders of the future. A crisis situation often reveals those high performers and who show that they have the skills, competencies, and dedication to handle left-field challenges and lead others to find valuable solutions. Make sure that they are not only rewarded financially but also recognized for their achievements, from providing praise to retention programs so such employees stay loyal.
Few situations test a leader more than a crisis, regardless of the cause. Keeping in mind the role that you play and the powerful influence you have on every person in your organization will help you steer people through tough times.