Leadership in challenging times

January 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything with businesses and individuals having to steer themselves through the unknown. Whether your business is in a region that has flattened the curve or one where coronavirus is accelerating, this is far from over; coronavirus is here for the long term. Because this is new, none of us can predict what’s going to happen, how long it’s going to last, or what the real longterm impact will be. Of course, it is not only businesses that will suffer; everyone is worried about jobs, family, friends, and what the future holds. 

This extraordinary time has delivered a three-pronged emergency:

• an economic crisis
• a health crisis
• a crisis of the unknown.

We don’t know what the world will look and feel like when the crisis is over, but in the meantime it has redefined effective leadership. The command-and-control leadership style has been obliterated; those who show compassion, emotional intelligence, empathy, and understanding are the new leaders.

As a leadership and workforce strategist of thirty years’ standing, I’ve always started from a position of having done it, witnessed it, or led it. However, nothing compares to this. There’s no manual or best practice that can help. Everything we do breaks new ground.

So what must a successful leader do? I say to all leaders, ‘You must do what you always do, but now is the time to take it to a new level’.

It’s all about communication

When writing my first book in 2003, I discovered the key element of leadership. Whether you’re a line manager, top corporate executive, or global leader; you can be the smartest person in the room, you can be the hardest worker, you can be a subject matter expert, but if you can’t communicate effectively, you’ll never be a great leader.

Today, that means you need to be effective one-on-one, in a group setting, or when giving a speech. As well as being a skilled face-to-face communicator, you must also be a competent video communicator. And you need to be a great writer because we all now communicate through Slack, text, email, and other technological tools.

The best leaders are great communicators. When people are nervous, as they are right now, they need to hear from you. I’ve never seen an employee survey that claimed there was too much communication. Now is the time to over-communicate. Even if you don’t know the answer, communicate that you don’t know the answer. Any response is better than no response.

When there’s bad news, be upfront and immediate. Never hide bad news. I have a client with a successful business in the hospitality industry. He realised on a Thursday evening in early March he was going to have to lay off about half his team. He texted me the next morning, I gave him my thoughts and potential strategies. By noon, he addressed all his employees, preparing them for bad news. On Monday, he gave the bad news to everyone. He didn’t delay and he didn’t sugar-coat the message. As soon as he knew, he made sure his employees knew.

You are always on stage

This crisis has revealed the strong leaders (and the weak leaders). Look at the leaders on the international stage. Who are people responding to? Which of them are making good decisions, showing empathy, and doing the right thing? True character is revealed during a crisis, and people respond to character. They look to leaders to signal that their life is going to be okay.

Your people take their lead from you. If you are calm, thoughtful, and empathetic, you’ll put people more at ease. If you’re not, that’s an issue.

It’s all about emotional intelligence and empathy

Ask yourself these questions:

• What are your people thinking and feeling?
• What are their issues?
• Do you understand?

If you don’t know the answers, ask. This is even more important for employees working remotely. People need to feel tethered to the organisation they work for. People crave connection.

Showing genuine compassion and empathy means understanding that every person is different, with different needs. Don’t treat everyone the same. Now we must lead by understanding that one size fits one, not all.

As often as possible, connect individually with those you work for and those who work for you. Ask how they are and be sincere – you can’t fake compassion.

Show humility and gratitude

A few years ago, I started intentionally practising gratitude. Every time I get a little full of myself, I remember where I was in 2009 – a business crashing in the middle of a recession and facing bankruptcy. It’s a constant reminder of the need to be humble, and therefore grateful for what I have today.

How you do it is critical: be true to yourself

All you can do is your best. Make sure that, to the best of your ability, you create a sense of trust. Trust is a combination of transparency and honesty. Trust originates in your established values and ethics: when you’re true to your values, decisions become easier.

You have established values, principles, and ethics whether you know it or not. If you haven’t done so already, write them down and review them daily. Remember who you are and don’t forget where you came from. Your employees are counting on you.

About the author

Eric Swenson
Los Angeles, USA

Eric is a workforce and leadership strategist whose companies support nearly 300 businesses throughout North America. He works with C-level executives to help identify talent, enhance corporate culture, develop leaders, and maximise
productivity. A sought-after speaker, he speaks to organisations and conferences on topics ranging from leadership and management to workforce trends and issues.

His two brands, Tanzanite Leadership Development and Symmetry HR  Outsourcing are sister companies to Russell Bedford International affiliate Rose, Snyder & Jacobs LLP.

Eric has written two books on management and leadership, and his third book, Weaknesses, will be published in January 2021.

Author: Eric Swenson - RSJ Swenson, Los Angeles, USA

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