I’m An Effective Leader. Why Don’t I Have Answers?
By Jonathan Spector
For a full list of resources and toolkits, check out our COVID-19 response page.
Two weeks ago, as many people in the US were just starting to make their personal shift in recognizing the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, I had a virtual meeting scheduled with one of our consulting teams. We opened the meeting by giving space to each of the 18 people to share how they were feeling and personally experiencing what was unfolding. People shared things like:
“I really miss being in-person with clients and our team.”
“My upcoming vacation travel has been canceled.”
“I’m uncertain. I don’t know what to believe.”
This might seem a bit “soft” for a high-performing, agile team that’s causing big impacts for a very large government agency. Yet the team seemed to be yearning to share – for real – how they were experiencing this seeming unreality. Person after person freely shared. The check-in took more than half of the one hour scheduled. And it was the most powerful and appreciated action we could take in the moment.
The title of this blog is the basic theme I’m hearing from leaders around the world with whom I’ve communicated this past week. Some of these leaders, and possibly you, have led through significant internal and external crises before.
You have diligently planned, prepared, and exercised. And yet your playbook doesn’t work today.
Traditional risk management exercises consider the adverse impacts of an event against the probability of those events occurring. The higher you go on both scales, the more prepared you need to be. This crisis changes the game board to one with axis’ that reflects degrees of uncertainty at a scale not typically accounted for. The rules of this new game board include:
- Impacts that exceed our most extreme risk projections
- Managing an immediate shock that becomes an enduring stressor, with the impacts rapidly escalating over time
- An event of a magnitude inconceivable at this speed (rapidly evolving) and scale (global and very local)
- No end in sight
- Very high stakes: people being infected and dying at an exponentially growing rate
- The overload of information being shared that is processed by people at a very personal level, with different individual frameworks for processing and sense-making
We’ve exceeded many organizations’ previous thinking capacity – exploding through the boundaries of anything the most experienced leaders have ever encountered. And yet you, and I, and we, must continue to lead.
How do we lead and find answers when those answers don’t (yet) exist?
Step one: Notice and be present to multiple RIGHT vs RIGHT (vs RIGHT vs RIGHT…) tensions you’re experiencing:
- Realism vs optimism
- Economic concerns vs social responsibility/humanness
- Good for the short-term vs. good for the long-term
- Good for the individual/company vs good for the world
Step two: Create space for others. We have lost much of our social interactions at a time when people need to share how they’re feeling more than ever. People trust and will follow leaders who they believe genuinely care about them, especially in uncertain times. This crisis is impacting everybody in some way. Take the risk to be vulnerable and lead in ways that may be unexpected as a leader.
Step three: Communicate. As Jim Collins describes the Stockholm Paradox in Good to Great, the balance of realism and optimism is your framework here. Be brutally honest and provide vision and hope. Describe reality and share your vision beyond today to a new place where others may not yet be able to see.
There is hope. Amidst today’s devastating impacts, what’s also emerging is an abundance of kindness, generosity, and innovation.
Step four: Breathe. This is going to take some time. Surviving and thriving today will be about process and pace, not just rapid response. Think marathon, not sprint. As this progresses and the wear and tear (everywhere) accumulates, some things will feel more normal, some will continue to spiral down, and emotions will be all over the map. Week 5 won’t be like Week 4.
Managing self and expectations is increasingly important.
Please take care of yourself. We need you whole.
Our new normal will again shift to a new, new normal. I encourage you to be part of those leading us there.
What is weighing heavy on you? What other tensions are you experiencing? Please reach out to me and share.
While there is lots to unpack in all of this, here are some toolkits that The Clearing has created to get you going with some remote work best practices, including how to prepare technology, design remote sessions, and manage remote meetings. Feel free to share this with others in your organization.