In Times Of Uncertainty, These Are The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Leaders
Leadership expert Robin Sharma once said, “Anyone can lead when the plan is working. The best lead when the plan falls apart.”
For most, any plan we had for 2020 has likely fallen apart. This feels like a watershed month as we come to terms with the fact that the past few months may have only been the pre-season. With an election, second (and third) waves of Covid-19, and immense economic uncertainty looming, leaders are pausing to ask the questions that are critical to every organization: How can we move past merely enduring it all, to functioning effectively and even thriving?
Now more than ever, people want to be led. So what does effective leadership at times like this entail? I’ve spent my career helping organizations navigate change and have had the privilege of seeing some of the world’s top CEOs in action at times like these. Here are seven things the very best of them get right time and time again:
1. Balance Realism And Optimism
The first thing effective leaders do well is strike the right balance between reality and hope. People need to believe that better days are ahead, but they also want to know their leader has a grip on reality and is upfront about confronting it. Even putting the worst-case scenario on the table (in a thoughtful and digestible way) can provide a sense of relief. As doctors will tell you, it’s sometimes easier to handle a bad prognosis than it is to live with an unclear diagnosis.
Strong leaders know that optimism is a force multiplier. Without it, organizations can quickly fall into varying states of paralysis and, consciously or not, become overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. Grieving a past that no longer exists not only deters employees from being able to access the fullness of their capabilities, but also greatly diminishes the organization’s capacity to problem-solve or imagine a brighter future — the only antidote to which is a dose of pragmatic optimism.
2. Communicate Often And Authentically
When people are fearful about the future, they ruminate over worst-case scenarios, and rumors metastasize with speed. To counterbalance unhelpful speculation, leaders need to communicate with transparency and authenticity, making it a priority to be visible and present, even if they don’t have all the answers.
During times of crisis, it’s tempting to wait until you have a buttoned-up plan to communicate. But as John Donahoe, CEO of Nike, recently shared, “I used to think I couldn’t communicate without the answers, but during uncertainty, no one has the answers.” Instead, he has discovered that there’s power in simply showing up. As he put it, “Showing up as your most authentic self is a powerful leadership tool in our current world context.”
Effective communication during a crisis requires empathy, meaning-making and direction-giving, which are very different from simply transmitting information. These also go a long way in providing employees with the sense of connection they crave while working remotely.
3. Focus On Purpose And Culture
Before Covid-19, life often felt like we were running (or sprinting) a race. Now, we’ve found ourselves tripped up, through no fault of our own. While there are those who will simply pick themselves up and keep moving down the track, others are pausing for long enough to wonder why they were running in that particular race to begin with.
For that reason, it’s critical for leaders to double down on purpose and culture. It’s exactly when times are turbulent and employees are second-guessing what they’re doing that they need to be reminded of the company’s “why”: Why do we exist? Why would anyone want to work here? Why should they care?
High performing, elite teams have “utmost clarity of purpose and a shared frame of reference,” according to Alia Bojilova, a New Zealand–based industrial psychologist (and my colleague at Propel Performance Group) who has studied performance and resilience among special-forces military teams who are trained to perform at exceptional levels under conditions of acute stress and ambiguity.
Keeping employees engaged is entirely dependent on connecting them to the team’s purpose, reminding them that they belong to something greater than themselves and reminding them that they’re an essential part of the organization they’ve helped to create.
4. Nourish Yourself
As anyone who has led large teams will tell you, being a leader is like living in a fishbowl, where you’re the fish. Even on a good day, the way you dress, the mood you’re in and the words you use take on a disproportionate weight. But during a crisis, every facet of your demeanor is magnified.
For this reason, great leaders know the importance of operating every day as the best version of themselves: calm, rested and emotionally strong. When you’re in top form, it has a contagious effect on the organization. It sets the right tone, instilling confidence in those around you who rely on your good judgment.
Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it’s the most selfless thing we can do. Exercise more, meditate, eat well and get plenty of sleep. Not only will you benefit from it, but so will all those who swim with you or stare into your fishbowl each day.
5. Evaluate Competitive Positioning
The past few months are a case in point of how change happens faster during times of change. For instance, recent research by McKinsey highlighted how the U.S. has experienced 10 years’ worth of growth in e-commerce in just the last ninety days. And as one traditional retailer after another succumbs to this dynamic, it shows how dramatic shifts in competitive positioning can occur at moments like this.
The crisis has tripped a major circuit breaker in a wide variety of industries, and the wisest leaders take advantage of these dislocations. By tightening down in some areas (such as cost) and doubling down in others, they not only survive and bounce back but actually figure out how to “bounce forward” and bend the curve of their trajectory as they emerge from the crisis.
Bouncing forward requires that leaders, rather than getting triggered into fight/flight/freeze mode, engage their capacity to keep their eyes, ears, hearts and minds wide open, which is only possible when they invoke the most important characteristic of all: curiosity.
6. Get And Stay Curious
The ability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do is only possible through curiosity, the prerequisite to which is humility; effective leaders have both.
Among its many benefits, curiosity stimulates the reward centers of the brain, helping us to anticipate positive outcomes rather than only worry about risks. It also engages our capacity to seek and enjoy challenges, rather than avoid them, and it allows us to recover and grow faster following setbacks.
According to Bojilova’s soon-to-be-published research, which examines the critical relationship between curiosity and resilience, curiosity enables a range of cognitive, emotional and social capabilities that are vital to individuals, particularly during times of duress.
As she puts it, “Curiosity is a superpower for anyone, but particularly for those facing conditions of stress or ambiguity, as it completely reorients how they view and connect with their unfolding context.” By nurturing and developing curiosity — which she considers to be a state, as opposed to a trait — leaders have the “ability to disambiguate and purposefully re-engage with their environment, rather than simply responding or reacting.”
7. Pause And Celebrate Successes
These past few months of grueling “pre-season” have raised countless questions and surfaced many latent fears. However, they have also equipped us with invaluable insights about ourselves and our organizations. This period has made certain vulnerabilities evident but has also illuminated strengths and capabilities that should be recognized and celebrated at every opportunity.
Effective leaders resist the urge to simply keep their foot on the gas; instead, they pause long enough to seek out the metaphorical pebble in the organization’s shoe. They recognize that while certain cadences and practices may have sufficed and helped the organization muddle through until now, they are unsustainable in the long run. At an individual level, each employee needs to be given the space to pause and examine what their pebble might be.
During ongoing times of challenge, it’s essential for leaders to refortify and reinforce people’s self-efficacy by highlighting all of the obstacles they’ve overcome, the successes they achieved and the capabilities they’ve displayed.
These qualities and habits of effective leadership have always been desired, even before the chaos of 2020. But now, more than ever, it’s time for leaders to bring their best and be their best.
Surviving, and better yet, winning through the regular season depends on it.