When there’s confusion, uncertainty and disruption, people look to their leaders for clarity and hope; to bring them together and help them move forward
Those of us who lead others – in our companies, our communities, even our social groups – recognise that during difficult times people look to us even more often and with even higher expectations.
And as leaders of good conscience, we take that responsibility seriously. And yet – it’s daunting. How can you be the kind of leader that brings out the best in people and helps them figure out how to create a new, better future in the midst of unprecedented change
In our work with leaders, we often focus on six leader attributes that people look for in their leaders and that are highly correlated with “followability”: Farsight, Passion, Courage, Wisdom, Generosity, and Trustworthiness. When people see a leader demonstrating these characteristics, they feel safer, stronger, and more motivated to follow that person. And it turns out that during times of great change and uncertainty, these six attributes are more important than ever: leaders who operate in these ways can draw people together and support them to succeed through even the most difficult of circumstances. Here’s why each of these attributes are especially important now, and how you can demonstrate them in working with and leading others:
Farsighted – The greater the uncertainty, the more people want leaders who have a vision for the future, and who work with them to figure out how to get there. One of the difficulties in times of tremendous change is that we don’t really know what the future will bring. However, just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything; in times of change, it’s easy for people to drift into believing nothing will be the same, or that everything will be bad – neither of which are true.
As a leader, you can be farsighted by focusing on those important things you know will still exist, or that you’re deeply committed to making happen. For example, in our organisation, we’ve consistently focused, through these months of disruption, on three elements of our hoped-for future: keeping employees safe, serving our clients in the new ways this situation requires, and keeping our company on a good financial footing. By letting our people know those three core elements early and often, by acting in ways that support those elements and by engaging employees in figuring out how to do those things – we’ve created a consistent, practical vision that has served as a north star for us and for our staff, even as so much around us has continued to change.
Passionate – People want to know that their leaders are deeply committed. Passion in leaders isn’t loudness, or pizzazz – it’s a combination of depth of commitment and openness to new ideas. People will look to see if you stay focused on what’s important to you, and at the same time, whether you are “permeable” – if the situation changes materially or if new, critical information arises, whether you will change in response. This balance of depth and openness is particularly important now, when so many things are changing so quickly: people want to know they can count on you and your commitments…and that you can shift when that’s necessary, as well.
One senior executive we work with demonstrated this beautifully at the beginning of the pandemic. She runs a media sales organisation, and one of the things about which she is passionate is personal service for their clients. At the end of February, her salespeople were still out servicing their accounts in person. As more became known about COVID and how it spreads, and as her sales managers began to express worries about the safety and health of both sales staff and clients, she shifted her stance quickly, and sent a message to everyone in the organisation that their number one priority was now to figure out how to provide the same level of personal service – virtually. During the first week in March, her folks switched entirely to virtual client interactions, and only two people in her group of hundreds have since become ill with the virus. A great example of depth of commitment combined with openness to change.
Courageous – The kind of courage people look for most in leaders is the willingness to put themselves at risk for the good of the enterprise. For example, courageous leaders make necessary, tough decisions – even if those decisions might reflect badly on them, or turn out wrong. And if they do end up having made a mistake, they take responsibility for it and say what they’ll do to address the negative outcome of their decision. This sort of courage is especially necessary now, when difficult decisions have to be made daily, sometimes hourly – and when, because we’re dealing with so many unknowns, some of those decisions will invariably turn out to have been wrong. And when even the “right” decision may turn out to affect people negatively, courageous leaders need to acknowledge both mistakes and the negative impacts of “correct” decisions and take responsibility for all that they do.
Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, decided in May that it was necessary, given the impact of the pandemic on their business, to lay off about 25% of his staff. The letter he wrote outlining the decision and why they made it is a truly great example of this kind of leadership courage. Chesky makes clear the tough and necessary decision he has made and takes full responsibility for having made it. Further, he shares with everyone why he believes the decision was necessary, given their business model and the effects of the pandemic. Which goes to wisdom…
Wise – Wise leaders listen deeply and reflect on what they hear, and also on what they experience and observe. They learn from their understanding and experience, and they share what they’ve learned with those around them. Wisdom is more than knowledge: it’s using your knowledge to grow and to help others grow. Especially in times of great disruption, people look to their leaders to help them make sense of what’s happening so they can better respond to it. When we’re afraid, and much of what we’ve relied upon seems to be shifting, we want our leaders to think deeply about the most important issues affecting us. We want them to share their insights with us, and to use those insights in making their decisions. It’s particularly disturbing in difficult times if we think they’re simply being reactive, or acting out of fear or self-interest. Chesky’s letter to his staff shows not only courage, but wisdom. It’s clear that he and his team thought deeply about this decision, and he shares their thinking in the letter, so that his people can understand why he felt this difficult decision was necessary to the ongoing success of the business.
Wisdom is also important one-on-one: I’ve seen during the past few months how employees naturally gravitate to those leaders who listen deeply to them, consider their situation, and help them come to decisions that balance their well-being with the priorities of their company.
Generous – In many companies, resources are stretched thin: revenues have shrunk, and the path back to profitability looks challenging. That may make it hard to see how to be generous now as a leader. But generosity is about much more than money. There are important ways to be generous even when times are financially tough. People look to leaders for generosity of spirit: sharing time, knowledge, authority, power; giving credit and praise; having faith in their potential. Perhaps most important, generous leaders assume positive intent: they know that most of their employees want to do well, want the company to do well, and want to support their colleague’s success – and they let their employees know that they believe this of them.
As a leader, it’s important to remember how necessary and nourishing even small acts of generosity can be. Recently, I thanked a colleague for something she had done and told her how creative and effective it was – and she responded that my words were like “fuel in an empty gas tank.” In these tough times, everyone needs the genuine support of generous leaders.
Trustworthy – Being able to rely upon our leaders – to know that their word is their bond and they’ll do everything in their power to deliver on their promises – is key to our willingness to follow them. That is always true; it’s so much the case that untrustworthy leaders spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to convince their followers that they are indeed trustworthy and that any evidence to the contrary is not to be believed. In times of change, though, the stakes are even higher. When we feel as though our core assumptions are being challenged – about what work looks like, about the nature of our society, about the past and future of our nation – we long for our leaders to tell us the truth to the best of their ability and to do what they say they’ll do.
As a leader during this time it’s critical that you make sure to tell people only what you know to be true, to promise only what you fully believe you can deliver. And if you discover that what you thought was true isn’t true, or that you won’t be able to deliver on your promises – to let people know that, as soon as possible, and tell them what you’ll do instead. When people are feeling confused and unsafe, knowing that their leader is both credible and reliable is hugely reassuring. When you are a trustworthy leader, your people are much more likely to be willing to come together and keep moving forward through difficulties and obstacles.
And we’ve seen that’s true of all six of these qualities. By consistently behaving in these ways as a leader, you can create an environment of hope and creativity, clarity and calm, where your people can coalesce around you and work together to find a new normal that will serve all of you, your business, and the world.
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