In his inaugural address in 1933, amidst the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “There is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”
Now, more than ever, we need leaders who demonstrate wisdom and courage in the backdrop of great uncertainty to inspire people through difficult times.
The role of the chief executive has undergone tremendous change these past few months. Contrasted to the pre-COVID-19 days when the focus was on increasing market share, driving revenue growth and rapid innovation, many CEOs have had to pivot dramatically. The focus is now on controlling costs, laying off or furloughing employees, and maintaining business viability – all this in the ever-present backdrop of safety concerns, remote working and maintaining their own, and their family’s, well-being.
Having worked as a leadership development consultant with more than 300 chief executives and multiple senior leadership teams, across three continents over the past decade, and learning from their experience what behaviors forged their leadership journey under crisis, I offer you some behaviors that constitute acting both with wisdom and courage.
Embrace action in ambiguity. Human beings are not comfortable with the unknown; we are wired to seek information that will make any scenario less ambiguous. During a crisis, we are both dealing with incomplete information and having to make sense from too much information, leading to cognitive overload. This can often lead to analysis paralysis.
As a leader, you need to recognize this instinct and overcome it. Every crisis has a recovery window when swift action can minimize damage. In medical terms it is known as the ‘golden hour,’ when trauma treatment is most effective in saving lives. Understanding that you will not be able to judge your decisions until you have succeeded or failed requires a lot of courage and a deep self-awareness of your natural tendencies to overanalyze or seek perfection. Swift action does not entail rushing headlong into motion. It will require you to make an assessment of what is at the greatest risk and where you need to shift gears, leverage people who can help you see a new angle, and then create a quick plan of action. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, NBA commissioner Adam Silver saw the threat of mass transmission of the virus at large events and suspended the U.S. professional basketball season, even before many governments advised people to stay at home.
In a rapidly unfolding scenario, leaders can only navigate from point-to-point and then pivot from there. This would mean throwing out yesterday’s play book and adopting boldly to new ways of doing things and learning on the go for you and your team. As a leader you might have to move away from an “I am the authority mindset’ and acknowledge you might not have all the answers and a perfect solution to moving to a mindset of leadership at all levels and quick experiments. During the Chilean mining crisis in 2010, where 33 miners were trapped beneath 700,000 metric tons of rock under a depth of 2,300 feet, Andre Souggarret’s ready acceptance of a brilliant idea from a 24-year-old field engineer led to several breakthroughs that were instrumental in eventually recovering all the miners alive, 69 days after they were trapped.
Offer purpose, hope and role clarity
In the absence of information, people tend to fear the worst. Marry factual honesty – a clear description of the challenges without sugar coating them, with credible hope – the tools, the resources and the creativity you have to meet the challenges and how you are planning to go about meeting them. Explain the “why” behind what is being done. As a leader, be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to have the answers for everything or making false promises — reiterate your teams’ top priorities — what it means for you and your organization, what the employees are expected to do. Clarify the roles around the larger purpose that gives people clarity on what is expected from them. In 1915 when Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition ship ‘The Endurance’ got stuck in ice and he realized that he and his crew would have to survive a brutal winter atop a floating iceberg during the winter, he insisted on a roster of stringent daily duties for all his men.
As anxiety looms ahead, employees are worried about their future, their jobs and their own safety or question on how long the crisis will last. As a leader you might not have all the answers, but you should address these questions with honesty and compassion. Acknowledge the underlying emotions behind the information. In a widely recognized example of authentic leadership, Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson’s video message to Marriott employees stands out for his ability to address not only the fears of the employees but also on sharing his own vulnerability with them.
The messaging you give to your team members demonstrates the behaviors you would like them to embody. ”
— Shyamli Rathore, CEO & Founder of Sidman Learning Solutions share
Communicate at the same time at regular intervals using the same medium to help build grounding and stave off panic. Let your stakeholders know exactly when and how you will give an update and honor that commitment even if all you can say is “I have no information yet.” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s regular TV briefings and Facebook Live sessions showcase a great example of how her communication frequency and style give her stakeholders both purpose and hope and helped the entire nation rally around her key messaging.
Leadership means sharing in the sacrifice
The Duke of Wellington once said of Napoleon that his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men. Employees will want to know what sacrifice you are willing to make and how you will fight in the trenches with them. Going back to Marriott’s CEO Arne Sorenson, in his video message, he mentioned that both he and Bill Marriott would not take any salary for 2020 while his executive team would take a 50% cut in the salary thereby articulating a sense of shared sacrifice with the rest of the employees at Marriott.
Manage your and your team’s energy and emotions
A crisis is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining on you and your team, and you don’t need to hide that fact. When you share your feelings and challenges, you are signaling to your team to also share their vulnerabilities. As a leader you need to put on your oxygen mask first by consciously practicing well-being rituals that recharge and rejuvenate you, as your energy is transmitted to the entire organization. It could be anything from physical exercise to journaling, gratitude lists, spending time with your loved ones, or having some device-free time for some part of the day. Encourage your team members to do this as well, and reflect it in your messaging.
As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the residents of New York to ‘take a walk’ and ‘call mom.’ The messaging you give to your team members demonstrates the behaviors you would like them to embody.
For more crisis leadership stories like these check out the COVID-19: Leading Through Crisis page on YPO.org. All YPO members can find breaking news, offer insights and view current discussions happening about COVID-19 impact within the YPO community on the YPO member-only platform.