3 Fundamental Leadership Lessons in Times of Crisis
The decision of the Commander in Chief to declare war on COVID-19 was clearly an accurate choice. I remember deploying to war for the first time in my military career after the United States declared war on Iraq in 1990. What I learned about leadership from that experience served me well for the rest of my career and continues today.
As we all are feeling, this is a crisis that threatens our physical, mental and economic health. Crisis environments are characterized by chaos. Chaos comes from everywhere and people need to know that adapting to meet the challenges is all part of the grand strategy.
My heart goes out to healthcare workers, retail staffs and others in essential services. They are on the frontlines of the fight. I also feel for the business leader or the head of a non-profit who is trying to keep his or her company vital during these difficult times.
When I think of the times I was leading in crisis situations, I found it valuable to be reminded of the fundamentals of what it takes to being effective in my leadership role. I say reminded because these skills are indeed the blocking and tackling of effective leadership at all times. In chaotic times, however, we often loose site of these. And too often, common sense does not mean common practice. In that light, I offer these three reminders that may help leaders at all levels to refocus on what is most important in leading your people.
Having established trust in relationships with your boss, your peers, and those who work for you before any crisis will pay huge dividends during the crisis. Lots of factors impact trust, a few are shared here. Trust is enhanced when leaders demonstrate by action their genuine care for their people and families. I remember how good it made me feel when my leaders engaged me. For people to believe their leaders, they must believe in them. People must see their leaders modeling – every day – the behaviors defined by the organization’s core values, such as integrity and respect. Just as important, leaders must see their people living the values. Value-based behaviors apply to everyone, from senior leaders all the way down to frontline managers, including the newest member of the team. People must also understand that leaders are human, they do not have all the answers, and they will make mistakes. By the same token, people need to know that leaders will underwrite their mistakes in pursuit of excellence. Each of these elements when followed, contributes to building trust.
Stay Focused on Priorities
Chaos creates many challenges, all of which compete for time and resources. Pause at the end of each day or week to reflect on how you invested your valuable and limited resources. Did you invest in what is most important to you, your organization, and your family? What are your priorities for tomorrow, next week, next month, next quarter? Staying focused on what is most important and not get distracted is not an easy task. Consider creating a dashboard as a tool of sorts, just like you have in your car, that highlights the critical metrics for success. Lean on your teams to help stay focused and in synch. The best leaders provide structure and predictability to their cadence of meetings (in the army we call this “battle rhythm”). Disciplined leaders execute meetings with precision adhering to its specific purpose. As an example, when meetings got into a free-for-all, I know of leaders who dismissed all attendees from the room. Then everyone reentered the room and the meeting started over. Take good notes on decisions made. Empower qualified, inspired people to take the lead on important tasks.
Effective communication must go two ways: up and down the chain of command. People need regular updates from leaders, especially important decisions made. People will always want to see their leaders and know what they are thinking, especially in times of crisis. I remember how valuable it was for me in my army leadership roles to get out amongst the troops. Leaders who seek feedback and listen to their people will gain powerful insights that will help them and the organization. The best leaders apply appropriate leadership styles with their people based on their individual needs. When effective dialog takes place, trust and camaraderie amongst the team members grows. It is a good policy to initially assume the best intention of people before openly criticizing or overreacting to something said. Take advantage of all types of media to ensure everyone has access to information. When effective communication is flowing in all directions, the organization stands to benefit in many ways, not the least of which is making more informed decisions.
The Bottom Line
Leaders must be tireless in their focus on what is most important during times of crisis. Competing demands come from everywhere. Leaders must commit themselves to addressing their role in their priorities. In times of crisis, executing these fundamentals must become common practice for leaders at all levels.