Leading people is difficult during a crisis. Regardless of what we learn in academia, there is no simulation or case study to prepare you for how you will react when a crisis occurs. The first time you are thrown into crisis decision-making, you will probably forget most of the lessons taught in the classroom.
So far, 2020 is a year of managing ongoing crises. Most leaders were not prepared for the radical change occurring from COVID-19 and the following civil unrest. During this time, across the public and private sectors, I witnessed leaders across the country displaying amazing resolve and determination. At the same time, I also saw leaders experiencing decision paralysis and failing to step up to face challenges. Personally, I fluctuated between both leadership spectrums of success and failure.
When I looked deeper into what caused leaders to succeed or fail in a crisis, I noticed some clear leadership traits:
- Success trait: Embracing empathy for employees and customers. Leaders that openly acknowledged the feelings of others, without imposing their thoughts or beliefs on them, created a successful support culture. This culture helped stabilize the morale of key stakeholders and made their organizations adaptable to change.
- Failure trait: Imposing your ideals on your workforce and customers. Many leaders have strong opinions on what is “right” or “wrong.” While these opinions often guide decision-making, leaders must be sure not to force their morality onto others. What drives you as a leader may not resonate with your stakeholders and/or the individuals you count on to achieve your goals. Do not alienate others with your “right” and “wrong.” Everyone processes information and reacts differently. Let people make their own decisions on right and wrong.
- Success trait: Empowering employees to share feedback (good or bad) and help shape the shifting work environment. During times of instability, a great tool to bolster morale is to give your workforce a voice. Actively listen to what they are saying and take tangible actions to make alterations based on their feedback.
- Failure trait: Relying on your title or status in the organization to drive changes. Some leaders are resistant to change and become short-sighted when faced with challenges. This can lead to withdrawing into their own minds. The peril caused by this is decisions end up being made in a vacuum. Even the most talented leaders do not know everything about a specific topic and need to listen to the counsel of or feedback from others. Failing to incorporate others into crisis decision-making may result in developing solutions that only satisfy part of the issue.
- Success trait: Diversifying the knowledge base of those individuals advising you. Differing opinions are a good thing. They inherently provide a mechanism to identify the potential risks involved in making a change management decision. Fostering diversity of thought will ensure you create solutions that address your entire workforce needs.
- Failure trait: Surrounding yourself with “yes” people. Honestly, everyone feels good when people agree with you. The problem with having everyone agree with you is that you are not getting their real reactions. Your ego may feel great, but at what cost to your organization? Fundamentally, as leaders, we must look for the greater good, not what makes us feel good.
Leading during a crisis is never easy. It requires thinking beyond yourself and turning off some of your experience-built instincts. This can be a daunting task. However, it can also be extremely rewarding. Doing the right things for your organization and people are well worth the effort. Being able to positively influence the lives of others and empower them is far more satisfying than stroking your ego.