In my previous article, I wrote about how to lead effectively in a virtual world, as is the case in this pandemic. You may have read the article and thought to yourself, “I’ll wait until we emerge from this crisis and make a shift in my leadership”. However, your post-pandemic leadership brand doesn’t begin to form once you’ve emerged from this shelter-in-place environment. The fact is this time of crisis is telling your entire organization everything they need to know about who you are as a leader. Sooner or later this pandemic will end and we will all be working in a far different world than before it began. The brand that you’ve reinforced in this crisis by your behaviors will define your leadership going forward. Don’t be fooled: What you have sowed you will reap. Right now is the time to decide what leadership brand you want to have on the backside of this pandemic. Four weeks from now will be too late.
In the midst of a crisis such as this with all of its volatility, people are searching for some measure of certainty. Since certainty can’t be found in the circumstances, people look to leaders for an anchor of certainty. This is why, in times like these, leaders must be available, proactive, and demonstrably interested in people – especially the people in their own organization. The alternative is to stay quiet and do nothing. This is tantamount to retreat. And in the absence of anything from you as the leader, people will begin to make up their own version about who you are and what is going on. Having led some very large organizations, I can tell you first hand, that when people start to make up their own story about you and what is going on, it’s rarely ever flattering. Remember the discussion about missing cognitive cues from my previous article? Lacking any realistic and honest information from you, your employees and colleagues take all of their not-so-favorable impressions, experiences, perceptions and biases and create that story in their minds. Like it not, that becomes your brand.
As your organization is emerging from this pandemic, your leadership brand will either drive followership, energy, a new sense of mission, and the productivity gains that follow, or it will drive distraction, disengagement, and attrition (people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses), resulting in productivity setbacks. (Mark Cuban offered some excellent advice on how to bring employees back to the office – if you do it at all – in a recent interview on CNBC.) In times like these, people are not energized by more process, new programs, or new products until they first know that their leader is empathetic to their current struggle. Otherwise, people begin to feel like a utility for the boss’s ambitions. They are energized by leaders who show a personal interest in their collective well-being and who are cheerleaders for the accomplishments that people and teams make in spite of the dire circumstances. This is especially tricky when lay-offs and furloughs have become commonplace. Sometimes, actions such as these can wear on a leader and make one want to retreat, hoping it will all go away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The circumstances may be hurting you, too. But letting people see that pain in you will give them something to connect to, because the odds are pretty good, they’re feeling the same way. People want to see honesty, transparency, compassion, and courage in their leaders, and if you retreat or try to avoid the tough conversations, you will have missed the greatest opportunity to build trust and to show your organization that real courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather being bold and operating in the presence of and in spite of fear.
The question you must answer now is this: How will your behaviors in this time of crisis define your leadership? Trust me on this: you can’t run from this question. You can ignore it or try to delegate it, but it will be answered loud and clear by what you do. Now is the time for you to be proactive and take initiative for the sake of the people in your organization. Be the leader you know you should be and that your employees deserve.
If you made the effort during this crisis to add to your leadership capital “bank account”, I’d love to hear your story, and I’d bet that others would too. If you know you need to make a change, but don’t know how, feel free to reach out to Dr. Mike Felix at firstname.lastname@example.org.