The set of events over the past few months has been a significant test for leaders. In a more steady environment, when objectives, roles and processes are mostly clear, there is infrastructure and guidelines that leaders can follow. But during what’s been called a “landscape scale crisis,” that’s no longer true.
Which skills are most important for leaders in this uncertain and fast-moving environment? Recently, I spoke with thought leaders and in-house leadership development experts across industries to hear about their observations of leadership during this time. It turns out that leading during crisis elevates four key skills above others. Successful leaders are separating themselves by demonstrating these behaviors, which are proving invaluable as they steer their teams through the crisis and its resulting ambiguity.
Effective leaders recognize they won’t have all of the answers. They survey the landscape, gather available data and determine the best path forward. Andrea Preston, director of human resources (HR) at PLS Financial Services, explains, “During a crisis, the effective leaders don’t step back. They start to see things emerge — they pivot and lead through change, but at lightning speed.” She continues, “It’s also their ability to interpret; leaders have to be able to deal with ambiguity.”
Nicole Dessain, founder at employee experience design consultancy talent.imperative inc, concurs: “Agility is key — when you haven’t encountered something before, you need an experimentation mindset.” Knowing that not every solution will work, strong leaders try something, learn from it and refine it. “We have to embrace failure, which is an important element of agility.”
The best leaders are able to adapt at the speed of change. They anticipate, try something, fail and fine-tune.
In times of tremendous change, leaders often have to make judgment calls. The future is murky, data is limited and they have to move quickly. While there can be a tendency in these situations to centralize control and adopt a high-directive management style, astute leaders recognize they will not have all the answers and must organize in way that allows for expedient decision-making by the people closest to the situation.
Maggie Laffey, senior director of global talent development at Zebra Technologies, says, “Leaders may thrive in an environment of process, but now, they must prioritize and give the team direction. As one leader told me, ‘It’s knowing where I need to make a decision so I’m not a bottleneck — in other words, only get involved where I can add value and let my team flatten and move fast. I communicate the plan, priority, objective and then I let them execute.’”
The current speed of decision-making requires leaders to shift the way they make decisions and to take some risks. Warren Lindley, former learning and development (L&D) leader at companies such as Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), Walgreens and Kellogg Company, says, “Leaders who are consensus-oriented simply don’t have the time to operate that way. You just have to make the right call, based on what you know at the time.”
Leaders who wait for answers to become clear or who adhere to a strict chain of command forego the benefits of their team’s creative thinking and may miss critical opportunities.
In a crisis, there is a danger of information overload. Good leaders can distill the most important information and present it with the right tone and frequency. This communication approach keeps people focused on what’s important and equips them with the knowledge they need to take action during uncertainty.
“Leadership is changing. We can’t do things in person, which is significant — it can be very disruptive,” says Christopher Lind, global head of digital learning at GE Healthcare. “Communication, for example — it’s not a new skill, but leaders have assumed their communication is good because they physically interacted with people; they could rely on casual conversations when they bumped into people. Now, they must be intentional.”
Laffey agrees: “Communication is paramount in situations when things are sometimes changing hourly. Leaders doing it well recognize they have to be authentic and concise. They prepare their teams that circumstances may change — and can change often.”
The flow of information from leaders helps their teams prioritize, carry out their responsibilities and adapt in real time. Being knowledgeable and having up-to-the-minute data enables teams to take action while formulating contingency plans and pivoting when necessary.
4. Empathy and Connection
Our work and personal lives have collided in a way that is unprecedented, and leaders have had a front row seat as their teams encountered the emotional and logistical hurdles of shelter-in-place policies. As Dessain notes, “We’re experiencing ‘empathy immersion’ — suddenly, we can see kids and dogs on work calls, we learn that spouses have been laid off, etc. Leaders who were goal-oriented suddenly get to know employees from what we see and hear in the background.”
Preston agrees: “What works when leaders can see people in person, when they aren’t coming with the full load of their personal lives, is no longer effective. The sudden blending of work and personal forces leaders to respond differently.”
The leaders who are fortifying connections and creating mutually supportive environments to find new ways of working are standing out. “We are seeing a new sense of collaboration: The leaders who can create formal and informal networks are meeting the challenges,” says Laffey.
Leaders must deal with the emotional lives of their teams by demonstrating empathy and keeping them connected to one another and to the organization. The company becomes an important source of community for workers, who may be now isolated from family and friends.
We are likely to see continued change throughout the next year or so. Leaders who are failing to adapt and are waiting for things to return to “normal” will find it challenging to evolve along with the environment. The leaders who leverage the attributes that enable their teams to adapt and grow through communication, connection and more distributed decision-making, on the other hand, will better harvest the opportunities that the environmental shifts present.