By Kerstin Woods
I think leadership in times of uncertainty, be it a pandemic, or a bad fiscal quarter, requires several acts of courage that run counter to our wiring as leaders. I’ve had a lot of different managers in my career (one time, during an acquisition, there were four different ones during an eight-month period – yuck!), and I’ve always tried to learn from their varied approaches – keep the good and eliminate the bad.
I’ve jotted down five things I think are important leadership qualities during uncertainty, see what you think. I hope you find these useful during any times of change – and remember, leadership isn’t reserved for executives or people with certain titles – we are ALL leaders. Be it in our workplace, communities or homes.
As leaders, we are trained to communicate with purpose – to know the answers and communicate with a clear strategy.
However, times of tremendous or unpredictable change, such as COVID, require communication in the absence of answers, clarity or even strategy (gasp!). Things will change so quickly that we can’t possibly have every single “duck in a row” in the time frame necessary to impact our teams.
The absence of communication is worse than the absence of answers. Similarly, confusing communication fuels uncertainty. It’s a fine line you will have to walk. It’s ok to not have all the answers, as long as you communicate with confidence your efforts to do the right thing as more details become available.
We’re fully human and so are our teams. Especially during times of change or crisis, people don’t want to be led by a robot who “has it all together” or who doesn’t acknowledge the reality of the situation. Be real. With that comes honesty, transparency, integrity – all character traits that are wonderful and don’t need to be hidden behind a mask of make-believe perfection. I think about how truly human this collective experience is with COVID. Be fully present and fully human.
Connection takes work and intentionality. It takes picking up the phone, reaching out, making the extra time. Pick a couple people each week and reach out. Don’t have an agenda, have an open mind. This isn’t a call to check on action items, it’s a call to touch base. Sometimes the people agenda is more critical than the work agenda.
One of my first team meetings after the shelter-in-place order wasn’t work related at all, we met late in the day and shared funny stories and met each other’s pets. It wasn’t work-related per se, but I guarantee we all left that meeting a little more connected to our jobs.
Empathy is all about understanding. Seeking to put yourself in another person’s shoes to gain a bit of perspective about where they are coming from. If you don’t make this effort, you will treat your entire team as though they are the same person with the same needs. And, I can guarantee that no team I’ve been involved with is made up of the same humans.
Think about how varied the COVID response might be within your team – some may have health questions, child-care concerns, family issues, financial fears. One of the first things I did was figure out who on my team was an extrovert and spend extra time with them, the lack of hallway conversation was hard for them and I needed to create opportunities for remote water cooler discussions to keep them engaged. Recognizing the fullness of your team, as individuals, allows you to speak more directly to their needs. The more I know about what drives them or distracts them, the more I can create an environment that allows them to thrive.
With authentic connection, comes acknowledging that things are not always sunshine, rainbows, kittens and cupcakes. Events like COVID come instead with concern, fear, doubt, confusion… Acknowledge those with authenticity and empathy, but don’t let them settle in as your office mascot. Seek the rainbow in the clouds. We celebrate successes in our team in each meeting because there are always wins to recognize, no matter how small or large, our focus always needs to circle back to be positive.
These five “simple” things take courage, I’m not going to sugar coat it. The penalty for failure is high when you really commit, because you’re more personally involved. However, the rewards are tremendous – loyalty, strength, comradery, focus, productivity – the list goes on.
Just remember – leaders shine even brighter in times of darkness– be the light in your jobs, your homes and your communities!