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Authentic Leadership in Times of Crisis

I have spent my career in the rapidly changing environments of early stage, industry changing companies such as Amazon and Google. In order to survive I have had to be adaptable and effective in environments of incredible ambiguity. I have witnessed incredible leadership and vision in these companies and observed what I feel have been universal truths in leadership in these challenging circumstances. 

Over the last few weeks of lockdown we have all had to adapt and adjust to a new normal in our personal and professional lives. We all now feel like we are early stage startups having to run daily calculations on our run rate and making survival plans. For many companies this is a dramatic change. There is no question that this is stressful and that we all long for the day when we can return to a semblance of normalcy. However, one of the rewarding effects of this crisis has been seeing an emerging appreciation for authenticity. Even Instagram influencers have shifted from overly filtered and produced posts to more raw and real depictions of the chaos, emotion and reality of our lives while social distancing. People are responding to this shift with an appreciation that we are all in this together and reprioritizing what gives our lives meaning and value. This is an incredible opportunity for impactful pivoting in our businesses as well. 

The reality is that all of us attempting to work from home in less than ideal environments have become the BBC guy who’s interview about North Korea on live television was famously interrupted by his small children. I love that all of my meetings now start with meeting everyone’s children, pets and life partners. I feel this bonding permission to bring our whole selves to our work in a way that was not as accepted in the past. We no longer have to pretend to have it all together all the time. My colleagues and clients are openly sharing when one day is more of a struggle than another and we move on acknowledging that that’s OK and that there is power in this open, honest dialog. 

Leadership in this time of crisis does well to also embrace this opportunity to celebrate a newly focused set of priorities and missions. I have CEO clients all over the world who are sharing the same struggles and challenges to pivot their business models, priorities and strategies to reflect this challenging business environment. Some are having the furlough or layoff employees just to survive another few months of drastically diminished revenue. Some are pivoting their business models to incorporate more online strategies for growth that they had been too afraid to test before. Across all of these companies, in different sectors, countries and growth stages, I have noticed common denominators for how their leadership has been most effective in these critical last few weeks. Here are three simple ways to have a direct impact on your employees sanity and the bottom line all while leading remotely with authority. 

1. Prioritize authenticity over perfection

It is increasingly important that leaders emphasize the value of learning over perfection in their company. The trouble with leading during the COVID-19 crisis is that no one knows when this will end so it’s impossible to reverse engineer long term solutions confidently with a constantly moving finish line. This means that you have no choice but to just make your best guess and present that as a concrete plan to your employees. Do not shy away from the fact that this is an educated guess. It is essential to build up trust with your employees by being as transparent as possible and share the raw data upon which you have based this plan. When employees see the cold, hard facts they are more willing to make concessions and endure cutbacks when they understand your plan and priorities and feel like they are being trusted with honesty and treated like a valuable partner. Now is not the time to silo information or limit transparency. They need to understand you, your goals and values now more than ever. Optimism is only comforting and calming when equally paired with levels of leadership talent. For example, when Trump boldly stated that he wanted America open for business again by Easter the American workers were not comforted or united because they did not trust in his leadership because that goal was not based on facts. By contrast,  Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, spoke to her people with a plan based on data and told her nation to prepare for the reality that 60-70% of the population is expected to be infected and that they needed to make some hard sacrifices now in order to survive the impact of that fact. When optimism is grounded in facts it unquestionably pays off. Don’t shy away from delivering cold hard facts upon which you are building your plan for company survival. 

2. Fortify relationships of trust

Leaders need to be confidently building strategies based on relationships of trust and empowerment. This only works if you have built a culture of openness and honesty. Leaders in high-trust workplaces actually gain trust and loyalty from their workers when asking for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Google famously has a very flat management structure. In fact they tried running the company with zero managers for a while but then adjusted to having skilled managers run large teams, often of 30 people or more, which requires a light touch management style because there just isn’t enough time in the day to micromanage with teams that large. If you have a company structure that isn’t agile and empowering to the individual then this crisis might present you with the right opportunity to change the culture, procedures and staff to reflect these values and streamline your efficiency. One of my clients has redesigned their entire org chart to a dramatically new model which fits their new reality and keeps them competitively agile and positioned for a quick recovery and growth long term. 

3. Employ honesty and radical candor

Now is the time for increased communication with your clients and employees. They need to hear more frequently from you than ever in this rapidly evolving landscape. Successes need to be acknowledged immediately to be sure you’re capitalizing on their impact and translating that in your business. And more importantly, employees need to be actively recognized for their sacrifices, impact and excellence. Rewarding them with public praise gives them a boost as well as translates these learnings into other areas of your business. Even in normal circumstances only 40% of employees say that they understand the company’s goals, strategies, and how that translates into their personal deliverables. The truth is that your daily communication with employees can be the simple key to fixing this disconnect immediately. Recognize that your employees are asking to deliver heroic results in very challenging circumstances. You need to reward the whole employee. Emphasize that you value what they are learning through experimentation and create a safe space for trying new things. Most importantly you need to not only encourage but demand direct feedback from your team. They need to feel safe and responsible to deliver data on how your plan is impacting their work and what is going well and what needs continued adjustments. The most innovative ideas always come from the bottom up rather than the top down. What you need to do is create value and goal alignment and allow for creative problem solving to form around those pillars. 

Ultimately true leadership is best expressed when you set clear expectations, offer data driven, measurable decision making and trust your employees to do the right things while getting out of their way.  I firmly believe that we will all come out of this crisis with refined and thoroughly tested business models and a greater understanding of our values and possible impact in our industries. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste so take full advantage of opportunities to experiment, pivot and refocus your potential for impact. 

Recommended reading

HBR article, The Neuroscience of Trust by Paul Zak

HBR article, How Google Sold it’s Engineers on Management by David Garvin

Fast Company article Why Optimism May Not be Enough to Carry us Through Times of Crisis by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Leadership Development

CATEGORY

4/22/2020

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Authentic Leadership in Times of Crisis

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